“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” –Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” –Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
I have been on a photography kick for the last year or so. I have always liked taking pictures and wished I knew more about how to make good ones, but this year I have started to take it more seriously. I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with it–not yet anyway–but I am definitely fascinated and absolutely eager to learn everything I can about it. It’s an artform that I really connect with. I want to think I have it in me, too. I would love to one day feel like a “real” photographer, able to create jaw-dropping images of the people and places in my world. Full disclosure: my current fantasy is not just to feel like a professional; it’s to be one. I daydream about people hiring me to take their portraits or buying my photos for the walls of their homes. The thought of it gets me all stirred up inside.
Here’s the kicker, though: becoming a “real” photographer requires not only the talent for it and the time to invest in learning the art and science, but also many thousands of dollars for the equipment to try.
Whoa! Time to pump the breaks!
I am such a cheapskate! I can’t stand the idea of spending what little “extra” money I have, especially not while I have people depending on me for food and shelter, not to mention fees for sports and the prospect of college in the near future. How dare I think of blowing cash on myself? Especially for something as decadent as multi-thousand-dollar art supplies? It just feels greedy and irresponsible to splurge on something I can’t even be sure I will make happen.
I mean, it feels right to me now. It’s giving my belly all the tingles and my brain a flood of fantasies. I can really see myself doing this and loving it. HOWEVER—ugh, I hate the however—I know I need to check myself. I am aware that I have a tendency to get excited about stuff, especially my kind of stuff—adventures, art, physical activity, mindfulness, self-improvement, etc.—and allow my mind to run away with fantasies of an entire lifestyle of whatever that thing is. I realize that I can get sucked into an Inspiration Du Jour. I own that. So when I really get into something new that feels oh-so-exciting and potentially fulfilling, I have to remind myself I have been here before. A few times.
When I was in my twenties, I read so many books. I loved books! But not only did I love them, I thought I should own all of them. I fancied the idea of owning all of the classics, leather-bound. I would line my walls with bookshelves and fill them all from floor to ceiling. And of course I would read them all. And not just the classics but every book in the genres I was into at the time. Every sacred religious text, every book of modern spirituality. Every great work of philosophy and poetry. Biographies, too, of course, and works of history. I liked dictionaries and thesauruses, too, as well as books of quotations and idioms. I wanted them all.
And now? I am SO GLAD I did not buy them or commit to reading them all! I would be thoroughly disappointed in myself. The book collector and nonstop reader idea matches up beautifully with someone who has neither children nor other major hobbies or obligations (like a job!). I still think it is a romantic idea, and it may be perfect for someone with a lot of extra time, space, and money. I don’t have any of those things, so it wouldn’t be a good fit. I never stopped loving books, though. Now I mostly just get mine from my library’s app, though, and read for a few minutes in bed before I fall asleep. I thought I was a book collector and devourer. I was wrong.
That is a lifestyle/hobby example, which is significant. But it doesn’t feel like as big a miss as those involving a career. I don’t know which category the photography thing will end up falling into, but if it is the career misfire, I’ve already been down that road, too.
About a decade ago, when I was ready to transition out of coaching tennis professionally, I became quite excited about the idea of becoming a life coach. I had thought seriously about becoming a psychologist when I was in college (and still believe that would have been a solid choice for me), but ultimately I went a different direction. But what I liked—and still like—about the concept of life coaching over therapy is dealing with “well” folks who aren’t looking to have their problems solved but just need someone to help make the path to their goals more clear and manageable. They want to go from good to great. That gets me charged up. Like therapy, though, life coaching is one-on-one and highly focused on going deep with a person, which suits my personality beautifully.
I enrolled in course work and was fully engaged, doing lots of practice coaching sessions with my classmates and other volunteers. I found I had a real knack for it and enjoyed being a part of someone else’s progress toward their goals, similar to the reason I loved coaching tennis. I believed I was making the world a better place, too, which is important to me. It felt like a perfect fit. I was into it! I believed this was going to be a smooth transition into my next career that I would ride all the way to retirement.
It turned out I was missing one important piece of the professional life coach’s toolkit: salesmanship. Life coaching isn’t covered by insurance, and doctors aren’t sending patients to coaches like they are to physical therapists or other specialists. There is no pipeline of clients banging down your door once you put your new website online. These folks are independent contractors, so they have to attract each client to them, convincing them of the value of coaching. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, strike up conversations with strangers about your skills, have an elevator pitch, and all of that kind of stuff. And because lots of regular people don’t really know what a life coach even is or what they do, it puts extra emphasis on the salesmanship element. I quickly realized that no matter how well I thought I could do the coaching, if I wasn’t willing and able to do the selling, I was not going to be a life coach.
Just telling that story bums me out, because it really felt like the right thing for me. And not doing it obviously shaped the course of my life in a major way. I wish I had been right.
I’ve been wrong about less consequential things, though, too. When I was in my early twenties, I developed a great love for the mountains and camping in the great outdoors. I was so happy to be out on a hike in the wilderness or sitting by a campfire looking up at the magnificence of the night sky before zipping myself into my sleeping bag in the tent, listening to the sound of the forest as I drifted off with a grateful smile on my face. I was an outdoorsman! And I was right about that—hooray!
But then I met my less outdoorsy wife and got busy with little kids in suburbia. When I believed they were finally ready, I planned an epic family adventure during which we would camp in the spartan national park campgrounds at Yellowstone and Glacier. We would do it like proper outdoorspeople: prepare our own food outside and sleep in the tent. I bought all the gear and supplies, as though this was our new lifestyle. And we all did it! It was great, our best trip yet. So of course, I was sure we had just become a camping family. My wife and kids would be begging for trips to the national parks, and we would know the tent sites and hiking trails all over this beautiful country. I was thrilled! I would be communing with Mother Nature again and I could pass it all down to my kids. A legacy of campers!
We haven’t camped as a whole family since, and the gear is collecting dust in the attic. No one is begging me for more nights in the tent or tough mountain hikes. I still hold out hope that they will come on another big adventure with me to the Tetons or Sierras, but I have a feeling we will need to rent a cabin or hotel room and eat at restaurants rather than by the fire. I was wrong again!
I’ve always been fascinated by vision boards. You know, getting a piece of posterboard and then searching through magazines or the Internet to cut out pictures or words that speak to you about who you want to become. The resulting collage strikes me as so inspirational and a good reminder of what you are striving for. I love looking at them. I’ve never made a vision board. I bet if I had at any point along my journey, many of the pictures or words I pasted on my board would have been proven flat wrong by the way I have lived my life. That seems weird to me. I tend to think most people’s paths are much steadier than mine, much less erratic.
This is not to say I have never been right about who I am and what I ought to do, even if I no longer do that specific thing directly anymore. I have always been a coach, even if I no longer do it as a full-time job. Any time I drive by a tennis court at a local park, I still feel the pull to give someone a stroke tip or some encouragement. Even though I no longer act on stage, I still feel that artform inside of me and would surely be delighted to find some role in a community theatre production when I have the time. Even though I write these letters to you much less often than I used to or than I would prefer, I still know deep down in my soul that I am a writer and always will be.
Maybe my disconnect is about distinguishing between what I love to do, what I do well, and what I can reasonably sustain as a career. I have shown a propensity for believing I ought to make a career out of things I love to do, especially if they involve being some sort of artist. I guess that’s where I am right now with this new fascination with photography. I know I enjoy it and that it scratches my creative itch. I know I am eager to learn everything I can about it. I know it plays into my ideals of setting my own schedule, being my own boss, working alone (in some cases), getting to be outside for parts of the day, and producing something people will enjoy or be inspired by. All of those things are great. But can I??? Will I be able to learn enough of the technical skills to become competent? Am I gifted enough in the artistry of it to make my images worth paying for? And, perhaps most crucial given my track record with entrepreneurism and salesmanship, do I have the marketing and business savvy to actually create a functioning business out of it? If the answer to any of these is NO, well, then I am wrong again about the thing I imagined myself to be.
But is being wrong about this actually so wrong? I mean, if I never become the professional photographer of my recent fantasies, I will still be a guy who loves taking photos. There are thousands of people who do that as their hobby and are deeply fulfilled by it. They plan trips around it. They save their pennies to get new equipment, which is endlessly exhilarating. They take family photos as favors to their friends. That is all positive stuff. It’s a different lane than what I have envisioned, but still beautiful.
Also, and only in this moment am I truly seeing this as a golden truth, just getting excited about being something new and different is its own kind of magical gift. It’s like falling in love. There’s that giddiness and thrill of this brilliant novelty that you can’t wait to do everything with. You generate all sorts of fantasies in your mind about how wonderful it will all be. The dopamine rush of it all is the best thing in the world. It’s truly intoxicating. Does it work out in the end? Not usually. Does the disappointment of that hurt so much that you swear you will never do it again? Maybe. But is that sheer joy and the anticipation of coming magic worth feeling over and over again? Absolutely!
So, I guess being wrong about who you thought you would be or what you thought you would be doing isn’t the worst thing. Sure, it can be disappointing. And it can be hard to find your way back into balance after striking out on a lifestyle you thought was meant for you. But think of all that curiosity you get to quell by giving it a shot. Think of all the different things you can become pretty knowledgeable about. Think about all the fascinating people you meet by diving into a new space. Think of the courage you gain by trying something new. Think of all the things you learn about yourself in that trying, and even in the subsequent “failing” or course-correction. And definitely think about the privilege of getting to the end of your life with no regrets, no What-Ifs. That is a priceless gift you can only give to yourself.
I don’t know how many more of these “I think I’m going to be a…” I will cycle through before I die. Probably several. I’m guessing most people go through a handful of them in their young adulthood and then fewer and fewer as they age, but I seem to keep churning them out. Perhaps it means I am just not satisfied yet, that I haven’t found the thing I am supposed to be doing. Maybe it means that I am incapable of sitting still for long, incapable of being satisfied by any one thing. I don’t know. I just get the feeling that I am meant to keep learning and growing and discovering everything I can about this world and everything it has to offer. One of the hazards of this inclination is that I fall in love quite frequently, with things like psychology, self-discovery, travel, music, journaling, acting, spirituality, tennis, philosophy, writing, the outdoors, movies, books, coaching, and now photography. And even if I can’t claim to be an afficionado in more than a few of those pursuits, each one has taken its turn filling my life with such magic and inspiration. Even if they didn’t turn out to be “Who I Am” for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t remove any of them from my journey. And I can hardly wait to see what magnificent pursuit will captivate me next, even if I’m pretty sure it will ultimately slide onto the back burner. I’ve been wrong about myself before. It won’t stop me from diving in again.
How about you? What are all the things you thought you were but simply weren’t? Open up your journal and tell your life stories. What things have gotten your fantasies popping with visions of your future? What kind of career field have you been pretty sure you were headed into? Did it start with the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question from childhood? What did you believe your future looked like way back then? What was your job going to be? What else would you be involved in? Did you picture your family situation? How long did you hold onto your childhood fantasies before adapting to the natural changes that come with maturity and adulthood? How many different career paths have you gotten excited about over the years? Of those, how many remained only in your imagination, and how many did you actually put some time and effort into exploring? If you look at your employment history, would you say you have had multiple careers or just one career (possibly with multiple different jobs)? Are you currently in the field that you once daydreamed about? How close are you to that? Has it met your expectations? If you are not doing what you dreamt of, why not? Are you still hoping to go for it one day? Is the thing you wish you were doing a reasonable option or something that would be highly unlikely for someone of your talents and means? Can you still do something like it as a hobby? Would that still be fulfilling to you? What other hobbies or passion projects have you imagined that you would take on? Have you fantasized about getting into the arts in some way, like becoming a musician or a painter? Have you dreamt of building things? Do you see yourself as a someone who volunteers their time for worthy causes? Have you wanted to be a mentor to someone? Do you have aspirations to run races or do a triathlon? Do you imagine your body looking a different way? Is there a lifestyle change you think would be perfect for you, like traveling or outdoor adventure or a religious commitment? How many significant changes have you undergone along your journey regarding who you think you are or what you do with your time? Did you change more often when you were younger, or has your rate of change been fairly consistent over time? Do you think your lifestyle is more or less stable than the other people in your life? What do you attribute that to? If you aren’t fully satisfied with your current lot, do you have any ideas brewing in your mind about what else you might do for fulfillment? Which ones excite you the most? How reasonable are the options? Which are you most likely to take a chance on? Of all the different ways you have lived to this point, which suited you the most? What about the least? Have you been pretty close most of the time? Do you see each new effort to fulfill a fantasy as a gift—like falling in love is a gift–even if it doesn’t stand the test of time? Leave me a reply and let me know: Of all the things you once thought you were, how many have you been wrong about?
P.S. If this letter resonated with you today, please share it with your community. Let’s talk about this stuff!
P.P.S. If this way of introspection appeals to you, I encourage you to buy my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online booksellers.