Why Self-Improvement Scares the Sh*t Out of Us


Think of the last time you considered self-improvement in your career, relationships or health. You probably did some reading on the topic. Might have talked it over with friends or family. Maybe even started to implement some changes.

Then, chances are, you backed away from it. Hella fast.

There's a good reason for that:  self-improvement feels awful.

We go into it thinking it'll make us happier and then - just our luck - we feel the complete opposite.

Even with rock-my-world, becoming-the-person-I-always-wanted-to-be sorts of self-improvement.

Today we'll discuss why this happens - and how you can break the cycle of "I want to make change but it feels crappy so I think I'll stay the same, thank you very much."

The Downside of Self-Improvement

"Growth isn't always fun." - Corey Keyes, Ph.D.

Last Thursday I attended the Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP) meeting in Washington, DC, at which keynote speaker Keyes, a sociologist at Emory, showed us just how bad self-improvement can make us feel.

Using data from a nationally representative sample of 3000 American adults, he noted that compared to people who had stayed the same over a 10-year-period, people who had improved their functioning had:

  • Less self-acceptance
  • More negative emotions
  • More depressive symptoms
  • Less positive emotions

In addition, the people who had made self-improvements were just as satisfied with their lives as people who hadn't changed at all.


I don't know about you, but this data doesn't exactly make me want to run to Oprah so I can start "living my best life."

Far from it.

Yet hundreds of thousands of people do so every day.

Why do we claim to want self-improvement if all it does is make us feel bad?

Why Self-Improvement Feels Bad

The answer lies in identity.

Take a moment to reflect on how you keep track of who you are as an individual. You probably see common themes running through your entire life, as far back as your earliest memories. There's a sense of continuity that you can cling to in order to understand yourself; a consistency that makes you you.

This stability is worth a lot to us:

"Self-consistency may sustain individuals’ beliefs that the world is coherent and controllable, and could provide confidence in one’s future." - Corey Keyes, Ph.D. (2000)

Now think about self-improvement. Since it focused on changing who and what we are, it violates our need for self-consistency.

Thus, "change doesn't always feel good," Keyes said at the BTtoP meeting.

The Upside to Self-Improvement

So why the heck do we bother attempting to improve our functioning?

Because there's a disconnect between what we feel and what we think.

Sure we feel crappier when we've changed than when we've stayed the same.

Yet we think of ourselves in a better light.

That's because in addition to self-consistency, our identity craves self-improvement. Thus when we manage to make change in our lives, we pat ourselves on the back. This results in well-being that's more cognitive than emotional:  increases in meaning, purpose, autonomy, connection, contributions, and growth - the eudaimonic aspects of well-being.

This brings us back to that meaning-happiness divide we discussed recently. Improving eudaimonic aspects of well-being comes at the cost of "feeling good." As Corey Keyes and his colleague Carol Ryff write (2000):

"Positive change is a mixed blessing: 'I may be different, but at least I'm a better person.'"

How to Make Self-Improvements Last - And Keep Seeking Them Out

The fact that emotions plummet when we improve ourselves, even though we also think of ourselves more highly, has huge ramifications on our willingness to make change. Keyes writes (2000):

"Individuals who feel like having grown personally and at the same time feeling depressed may be less likely to adhere to the positive lifestyle and health habits’ changes. In turn, such individuals may be less likely to seek positive changes in themselves and their lives after having felt depressed about past improvements."

It doesn't have to be this way.

Based on the research, there are three ways to maintain and continue to pursue self-improvements:

1.  Change Your Goals. If you believe the goal in life is to feel good, self-improvement isn't going to be your thing. The reality is that chasing pleasures is never-ending, placing us on a hedonic treadmill, while eudaimonic well-being is lasting (albeit not exactly "ooo, this feels nice.")

Consciously dedicate yourself to the pursuit of eudaimonia despite the pleasure trade-off.

2.  Focus on Your Thinking, Not Your Feelings. If you're willing to embrace a non-hedonic approach to life, you have to walk the walk by valuing your thoughts over your feelings. I'm a big believer in "gut feelings" (there's great data on the science of intuition), but that's not what we're talking about here. Here we mean emotional reactions to a situation - to your self-improvement. Be determined to not let your emotions seem more important than your cognitive assessment of your changes.

Focus on the meaning and significance of your self-improvements. You'll be less likely to be brought down by the emotional junk that accompanies them.

3.  Change Your Behavior, Not Your Self-Perception. Finally, throw your identity a bone. Recognize that when you make self-improvements, it threatens your sense of who you are. Stop saying things like, "I feel like a totally different person" - and do not utter "You're like a whole new you!" to anyone else!  The less we feel like ourselves, the more our emotions take a hit. The crappier we feel, the more likely we are to revert to old habits. The more we take on our old ways, the less likely we are to believe we can make lasting change in the future.

Focus solely on the behavioral changes you made, not on how you have changed. You'll be more likely to maintain the self-improvements for a good long while.

Now I want to hear from you:  Have you ever backed off from improvements in your life because they made you feel awful? If so, what did you do to counteract those feelings?

  • Keyes, Corey L. M. (2000.) “Subjective Change and its Consequences for Emotional Well-Being.” Motivation and Emotion, 24, 67-84.
  • Keyes, Corey L. M. & Carol D. Ryff. (2000.) “Subjective Change and Mental Health: A Self-Concept Theory.” Social Psychology Quarterly, 63, 264 -279.

Embracing the Shipwrecks in Our Lives


We're obsessed with shipwrecks. The Titanic alone takes up more than its fair share of square footage in our minds, and it's been a century since that icy night.

Where does this obsession come from?

Here's one guess:  self-recognition.

The Metaphorical Shipwrecks

In her recent book Shipwrecked in L.A.:  Finding Hope and Purpose When Your Dreams Crash, Gettysburg College professor Christin Taylor uses shipwrecks as her central metaphor:

"Shipwreck is the metaphorical coming apart, the crash that rips through the very fabric of our identities. Everything we have thought about ourselves, our lives, our futures, even our faith, suddenly comes apart beneath us, and we are left scrambling, trying to put together any type of lifeboat to make it to shore. These shipwreck experiences can be large or small, and we can hit more than one shipwreck during college and beyond." - Christin Taylor, Shipwrecked in L.A.

Although shipwreck experiences can occur at any point in our lives, they're especially common in the twenties when we first test out our dreams and identity.

All too often, our maiden voyages crash against the hard rocks of reality:

  • The world isn't waiting for us to make a difference.
  • There aren't fulfilling jobs waiting on every corner.
  • We'll never have it "all figured out."
  • We're not special after all.

How We Set to Sea

Before we can discover these realities, however, we have to set out to sea.

Compelled by society and the our passing birthdays, we undertake our first fully independent acts:  finding jobs, apartments, relationships, and a lifestyle all our own.

In the twenties, though, nothing is truly "all our own."

We like to think we're finally independent, but the influence of our parents looms large. (I've yet to get through a coaching session without a twentysomething client mentioning mom or dad!)

Taylor points to work by scholar Marcia Baxter Magolda to explain our parent-centric perspective:

"We each have a voice around us that informs our sense of the world, which [Magolda] calls the 'external influences that shaped you as an adolescent.' These external influences form a basic foundation for the way we view life as we step out into college and life beyond, helping us decide who we want to be and what our purposes in life will be. These come from our families, friends, and mentors and are the voices inside our heads guiding us and influencing each decision we make. The beauty of all these voices and expectations is that they form the first “ship” that keeps us afloat on the sea of life...We take with us the maps and navigating systems that guided our families’ or caregivers’ boats. We know these maps; we’re familiar with them, so they are our first lifeline. It’s not until we hit storms that we begin to rethink exactly how these maps and compasses work and whether they work for us at all. " - Christin Taylor, Shipwrecked in L.A.

Developmental psychologists call the process of rethinking our inherited "maps" individuation. Through it, we gradually become separate individuals with stable personalities and goals that may or may not match those of our parents.

To say that this process can be painful is an understatement and a half.

And no wonder:  since birth, we relied on our parents to support, guide, and care for us. Breaking from their expectations - however benign or benevolent they may be - can feel like a betrayal, both to us and to them.

Or, put differently, it can feel like being washed up on the shores of an unknown land.

Emerging from Shipwreck

To emerge successfully from the "shipwreck" process, we need some help from someone or something beyond our family.

Taylor points to research by psychologist Nevitt Sanford, who found that "every society sprouts up institutions beyond the family unit to help develop a person’s identity. He says, 'It is as if the society understands implicitly that it cannot leave the development of the individual personality to natural maturation.'"

These institutions include colleges, graduate programs, military settings, churches, psychotherapeutic and coaching relationships, and corporate mentorship programs.

For many of us, these "rescue vessels" don't appear naturally in our lives. We have to go and seek them out.

Finding one is well worth the effort. With the help of institutions that help us draw new maps, we find a fresh path forward:

"The journey out of shipwreck is the journey of coming home. If it were not for the cold waters of pain and chaos that shipwreck plunges us into, we would never reevaluate the faulty presuppositions we’ve had about the world and ourselves. We would never be forced to sift through the dead weight of our identities. Shipwreck shatters us, so that we are forced to pick through the rubble, to see clearly what no longer works, and find what has been a part of our being all along." - Christin Taylor, Shipwrecked in L.A.

The Beauty of Shipwreck

As someone who has experienced her twentysomething shipwreck and watched countless others hit their own, I can attest that it's a lonely, challenging phase.

It's also completely necessary.

If we forever rely on the maps of others - the expectations, goals, and "shoulds" passed down to us implicitly and explicitly - we never get to doing the work that holds meaning for us.

Lasting happiness is something for which we'll constantly struggle, relying on passing pleasures to fill the void rather than trusting in the resonating power of deep, grounded fulfillment.

Most importantly, the work that will make a genuine difference beyond ourselves remains undone, replaced by work that someone else wants us to be doing.

When we instead choose to accept the shipwreck process, actively seek out supportive institutions as we run aground, and then set sail anew, our lives take the form we'd always hoped for them.

"What’s the net gain of this pilgrimage home? The world gets bigger, and we grow with it. And though we would never wish to go through the pain of shipwreck again, though the gain does not nullify the pain, we also wouldn’t trade this newfound sense of the world around us and ourselves. We are grateful for the more nuanced view we now have of the world. The ground feels firmer and the horizon looks brighter." - Christin Taylor, Shipwrecked in L.A.


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Quarter Life Crisis Q&A


If you want to see someone get crazy enthusiastic about the quarter life crisis - I mean, arms flailing, camera bouncing, cheeks reddening - then check out the interview Nicole Denise conducted with me on the topic. To say I was "animated" while we were talking is an understatement. Don't believe me? Just look at the still image embedded below. <cringe> But there's good reason I get impassioned while talking about the quarter life crisis:

  1. Having a quarter life crisis marked a major, wonderful turning point in own my life (as you'll hear on the video).
  2. I strongly believe that the quarter life crisis can be an incredible (the best?) opportunity for positive change in the lives of twenty- and thirtysomethings.
  3. I know, contrary to popular opinion, that having a crisis is a GOOD sign, not a bad one. It means that you're engaging with life and questioning your future rather than simply accepting what "others" say is best for you. In other words, you're making the time and space to find your true identity! That process should be celebrated, not lamented (or even worse, avoided).
  4. I passionately believe that we can't do the work we're meant to do in the world unless we figure out who we are. Period.
  5. Ergo, quarter life crises change the world. For the better.

Nicole interviewed me as part of her thoughtful, well-researched post called The Quarter Life Awakening: 20-Something Crisis as The Portal to Epiphany. I highly recommend you give it a read.

Then watch the 8-minute edited clip Nicole produced from our interview, in which she poses the following questions:

  • What is your background?
  • How did you find your true self?
  • What does it feel like to be "not yourself"?
  • How would you explain the symptoms of the quarter life crisis?
  • What do you believe is the cause of the quarter life crisis?
  • Is there a definite answer to identity crisis?
  • What should come first:  thinking or acting?
  • Do economic woes cause or affect the prevalence of the quarter life crisis?
  • What is the solution to the quarter life crisis?

Want to know the answers? Then watch Ms. Ridiculously Enthusiastic give the answers!

When you're done, I want to hear from you in the comments: What are YOUR questions about the quarter life crisis? I'll gather the best Qs to address in future posts (or in embarrassing videos, whatever the case may be!)


Quarter Life Crisis Coaching

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5 Ways to Gain Well Being From Your Life Story


In the grand search for well being and happiness, our sense of identity plays a starring role. We grapple with three major questions:

  • Who am I?
  • How did I come to be?
  • Where is my life going?

The best way to take on these behemoths is by "constructing and internalizing a life story," according to eminent developmental psychologist Dan McAdams and a host of research in support of his theory.

In other words, we figure out who we are by writing a nonfiction narrative starring yours truly.

How Meaningful Life Stories Relate to Well Being

You've been naturally writing your life story since you were an adolescent, when you first became able to identify themes and causation in your personal tales:  "That guy I'm crushing on ignored me because my jeans are so Goodwill. That's just like last year, when mom made me wear those hand-me-down Keds."

As you can probably remember, adolescent stories aren't exactly meaningful.

That's why our twenties are all about figuring out who we are in a way that matters. It's no small task:  when we make meaning from our life stories, we enjoy greater psychological well being and higher self-understanding, compared to people with life stories that have little to no meaning.

"Through meaning making, people go beyond the plots and event details of their personal stories to articulate what they believe their stories say about who they are. Storytellers may suggest that the events they describe illustrate or explain a particular personality trait, tendency, goal, skill, problem, complex, or pattern in their own lives. In making meaning, the storyteller draws a semantic conclusion about the self from the episodic information that the story conveys." - McAdams and McLean

Given that making meaning from our personal narrative creates well being, the obvious question is how can we make meaning from our life stories? Here are five research-based answers.

1. Don't Just Tell Stories for Entertainment

Chevy Chase

Barstool stories are fun and definitely have their place in our lives (I, for one, wouldn't want to be around someone who is constantly trying to extract meaning from their life stories...which is perhaps why I married my opposite!). If you get hooked on only telling personal anecdotes to get a laugh instead of explaining yourself, you're less likely to create meaning and experience high well being.

Two of my friends come to mind. They always had an elaborate, hilarious anecdote to share for all gathered around, and gatherings weren't the same if they weren't there. These same people were deeply unhappy and dissatisfied with life, however, which you'd only discover if you happened to catch them alone. Perhaps this is one reason why comedians have high rates of depression.

Action Step: Balance your entertaining anecdotes with explanatory anecdotes - and make sure to cultivate friendships that let you share each.

2. Emphasize Your Ability to Control Your World

This is a biggie. If you can reconstruct your life stories to emphasize how much control you have over your world, the more well being you'll experience. In fact, studies show that rewriting your personal narrative to have more self-mastery, empowerment and achievement - aspects collectively called "agency" - is precisely what makes psychotherapy effective. I call this the "Becoming the Hero in Your Own Story" effect.

"Increases in personal agency preceded and predicted improvement in therapy. As patients told stories that increasingly emphasized their ability to control their world and make self-determined decisions, they showed corresponding decreases in symptoms and increases in mental health." - McAdams and McLean

Action Step: Consider how you're telling your life stories. Are you the victim in them, or are you active and impactful? If the former, be the editor of your life tale and rewrite that sucker. ASAP.

3. Consider Whether Friends & Family Accept Your Life Story

The following finding fascinates me:

"When important people in a person’s life agree with his or her interpretation of a personal story, he or she is likely to hold on to that story and to incorporate it into his or her more general understanding of who he or she is and how he or she came to be." - McAdams and McLean

This speaks volumes about the influence of our family, close friends, and significant others on our well being.

It also begs the question:  if the important people in your life don't agree with how we interpret our life stories, are we supposed to ditch them? Since research clearly shows that social integration is key to well being, that probably isn't the best choice. That said, I do believe in pruning friendships that consistently bring more misery than support, and friends' acceptance of your life stories may be one indicator of friendships that have run their course (or were a bad choice from the start).

Action Step: From here on out, actively choose friends and significant others who accept and confirm your interpretation of your experiences. It's your story, after all. Don't let anyone else be the author of your narrative.

Important caveat:  you do NOT want to surround yourself with people who accept your stories if they're full of "why me?" and "life is horrible" - these stories need to be challenged. But if you're telling thoughtful life stories, you shouldn't feel attacked and challenged. Period.

4. Identify the Redemption in Your Stories

Another way to create well being is to find the good in the bad. Psychologists call these a "redemption sequence" and they're important:

Redemption sequences "may sustain the hope or confidence that is needed to weather short-term setbacks while reinforcing long-term commitments to improving the lives of others." - McAdams and McLean

It may be impossible to find the "silver lining" while withstanding a hard time; in fact, feeling the full intensity of negative emotions in the moment may enhance well being. But once the moment has passed, do the hard work of making meaning, one element at a time.

Action Step: After a negative life event - such as an illness, loss or disppointment - make an effort to find the good that arose from the hard time. For instance, are you closer to your family, or know something new about yourself, or feel like you can take on different challenges in the future?

5. Find Attentive Listeners

be yourself for the sake of your well being

Finally, studies show that "attentive and responsive listeners cause tellers to narrate more personally elaborated stories compared with distracted listeners." This matches Point #2's take on psychotherapy's effectiveness.

Simply having a designated listener who reflects your feelings and asks clarifying questions can help you create meaning from your life story and find greater well being.

Action Step: Identify the friends and/or relative who consistently act as attentive listeners for your stories and make an effort to spend more time with them. You could also turn to a life coach, psychotherapist, or other professional. No matter how you find it, make sure you're being heard. It's the only way you'll hear yourself.

Now I Want to Hear From You

What do you do to create meaning from your life story? Or when have you actively changed your life story, and why did you do it?

What you have to say could make a big difference in another reader's life, so please share!


Source: McAdams, D. P, & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative Identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 233-238.

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Chevy Chase was the life of the party, but behind closed doors he suffered debilitating depression. (Photo credit: Alan Light)

You'll hear yourself best with an attentive listener at your side. Photo Credit: Leonard John Matthews

Are You Trying to Find Yourself or Construct Yourself?

I always hear the same thing from many of my twentysomething clients:  “I just need to find myself.” I wrote that in my own journal repeatedly, as if my identity were some fact waiting “out there” to be discovered. Like typing “who am I” into Google enough times might cause the answer to emerge, right alongside the atomic mass of boron and the circumference of the earth. But that isn't the way to find yourself.

Instead, the best method to find yourself is to stop searching and start constructing. And I propose doing this like a proper scientist:  By forming a theory. And revising it. Again and again.

Don't worry if you didn't make it beyond intro chem. The "science" you need to know you learned back in the first grade:  the good ol’ scientific method.

Here's how I suggest using that little dandy to construct yourself - and a life you'll love:

Using The Scientific Method to Find Yourself

1. To find yourself, start with a preliminary theory of who you are and what you want to accomplish.

Your "working theory" should be created based on your past experiences and reflections on those experiences. You’re looking to identify activities that put you in flow and overlap with the needs of the world in some way so that you can get paid to do them.

Example (drawn from my own life):  I’m someone who wants to spend her days writing about and engaging with the field of psychology.

2. Create a hypothesis based on your theory.

This is a more specific idea about you and your work, usually in the form of a particular job that might be a good fit for you.

Example:  I may find meaning and purpose in being a full-time freelance writer for textbook companies, focused on psychology.

3. Collect data.

In this stage, you live your hypothesis. In plain english, you go to work.

Example:  I spend my days as a full-time freelance writer.

4. Analyze the data.

During this stage, you reflect upon your recent experiences and consider whether they are creating a sense of meaning, purpose and flow (i.e., true happiness), or whether something is missing.

Very important note:  do not mix up the “collecting data” and “analyzing data” stages! All too often I see people constantly analyzing their experiences as they’re living them. Doing so tends to makes you not experience meaning, purpose and flow in your work for the mere reason that you’re trying so hard to identify whether you are in fact feeling those things.

Instead, commit to a time period for collecting data (e.g., I will try this job for one year before re-assessing) and THEN begin analyzing.

Example: About nine months into my year commitment to full-time freelance writing for textbook companies, I looked back and saw that the work was too isolating and solitary. I missed interacting with people and getting immediate feedback and reactions to things I shared. I enjoyed the deep engagement of writing, but it needed to be balanced with interpersonal activities in the future.

5. Revise the theory.

Take what you learned from your “experiment” and then change what you know about who you are and what you want to do. Or if the data analysis yields good results, by all means keep on keepin’ on!

Example: I’m someone who wants to spend her days writing about and engaging with the field of psychology, while having the opportunity to directly interact with people on a regular basis.

6. Create a new hypothesis.

Example: I’ll gain fulfillment from writing half-time and teaching psychology half-time. (This is indeed how I found my current work!)

And the process continues…

…hopefully for our whole lives. Being engaged in the experimental process of life is the good stuff, in and of itself. <Click to Tweet>

Once you embrace the scientific method of constructing yourself, life becomes one great experiment – one great adventure – that never grows stale.

The best part of this approach is that it takes the pressure off of finding the "right" path. If we think of life as an experiment, we free ourselves to try different alternatives, to not feel like we're wedded to a choice forever, and to not feel like we "failed" when a hypothesis ends up being unsupported by the data. In addition, this approach cuts analysis paralysis off at its knees, and also keeps concerned relatives off our backs. Who can argue with the scientific method, after all?

The Alternative

The people who are most dissatisfied with life are those who don’t even realize they’re constructing and refining a theory of self and life. They’re simply existing, going through the motions of making money and spending it, not sure what it’s all for, vaguely disappointed that life isn’t turning out the way they’d hoped.

They may want to know how to make life better, they might even be actively, incessantly asking the question, but if queried about where they are in the theory of their life, they'd have no idea. And they wouldn't care to figure it out.

Instead they keep typing searches into Google, waiting for the answer to their discontent to be revealed, not realizing that the best way to find yourself is to construct yourself, intentionally, systematically, and thoughtfully. <Click to Tweet>

Like any good scientist would do.

I want to hear from you:  Where are you in constructing the theory of your self and your life?



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The Who Am I These Days? Annual Tune-Up


Think back to the last time you tried to draw a straight line between two distant points, free hand. You’re happily drawing along, inch by inch, when you glance up and realize that – ugh! –your “straight line” resembles the warped arc of Sagittarius’s bow. Remember how our grade school teachers taught us to avoid this? We were instructed to place little dots between the start point and end point, and then to simply connect those dots. Voila! A straight line!

Of course life is anything but a straight line - the essence of its joy – but still the most efficient way to get from where we are to where we want to be is by drawing little dots between here and there.

Annual tune-ups are those dots.

With that in mind, I offer you The "Who Am I These Days?!" Annual Tune Up. The content has been inspired by various posts I’ve written here - including Monday's post Work-Life Balance Doesn't Exist - and I’ll continue to update the worksheet as new posts demand. If you want to hear about these updates, be sure to get on the Working Self Newsletter list, where I’ll announce each and every one - plus new self-reflective worksheets, rolling out soon!

I hope you enjoy your Annual Tune-Up! There’s nothing like getting back in touch with you and your goals to light a fire under your actions.

If you like this worksheet, please share it with a friend! And let me know your thoughts – positive or constructive - via email or in comments.

Before you complete the new worksheet I want to know:  what strategies do you use to keep yourself and your goals on track?

When Work and You Align

I had the coolest experience last week:  I realized that what I do and who I am are one and the same. I don't mean this in some creepy "I live my work, am super-glued to my inbox, and have no life" sort of way. Although maybe some would argue that's true of me! No, I mean it in the wonderful "I love what I'm doing so much that I'd be doing it in my free time even if it weren't my job" type of deal. And let me be clear about one thing:  ten years ago - heck, even five years ago - I wouldn't have even begun to believe this would ever be true. Pettengill Hall, home of the Social Sciences

I'm not telling you this to brag or show off or inspire bitter envy so strong that it makes you throw a pox incantation at my photo. I'm telling you this because I'm astonished that doing what you love is actually possible. For any of us.

Let's back up:  why did this realization suddenly hit me? I suppose it's too strong to say "suddenly;" it's been a dawning realization over the course of the past few years. I certainly wouldn't have started this blog if I hadn't already been realizing it. But I had the true "moment of insight," if you will, when I sat down to complete a work assignment last week.

The department chair at my college earmarks funds for each of the departmental faculty to buy anything that will support our teaching and/or research. With the fiscal year ending on June 1, I was up against a deadline and decided to find some good summer reading to inform my teaching.

So I hit Amazon and ordered 17 - count 'em:  17! - books. It was Christmas, my birthday, and Festivus wrapped into one.

The most incredible part, though, was that about half of those books came directly off my Amazon wish list. Yup, what I'd been longing to read was the same as what I needed to read.

In other words, who I am and what I do is, at long last, one and the same.

Now you might be thinking, "well you're lucky because you're an academic and that's what academics get to do." Valid point. I am lucky. But I didn't always feel lucky. In fact, for a long while I felt disgruntled about my teaching job and would hide what I did from people, dreading the, "wow, that must be a great job!" comment, to which I'd put on a thin smile and nod tightly.

You see, for the first five or so years of teaching, I felt like I had to pretend to be someone else when I stepped within the walls of my plush academic building. I felt like I should be someone who was on a straight path, who cared about pure research, and who believed in the immense power of empiricism above all else. In reality, I was someone who had a rebellious creative streak, who appreciated research of all types but personally wanted to engage in dissemination of others' research, and who wanted to study topics that I believed to be outside the realm of "serious psychology."


But a number of years ago, I became sick of putting on the front. At that point I left the position - intending to never return - and when I chose to come back a year later, it was as a more authentic me.

Into classes that once felt "boilerplate" and that had irked me with their rigidity - such as Intro Psych - I started to infuse ME. For instance, into 101 I put a "Psych In Action" portion in every lecture, during which we discuss direct application of psychology research and theory to students' lives, and actively engage in reflection on ourselves and our lives. And when I was offered an upper-level developmental seminar, I went out on a limb and chose to focus our study on the development of meaning and purpose across the lifespan, topics I was pretty sure I shouldn't be discussing unless I was an erudite old man in the philosophy department or some weirdo pseudoscientific self-help guru.

Since I'm not on the tenure track, there were real risks involved in these decisions; any given year I can be not asked back. In other words, in order for me to make change, the fear of losing my income had to be outweighed by the fear of living a life which wasn't authentic and passionately lived. And right around the age of 30, that tipping point arrived.

At first my students seemed caught off guard by my choices - they were different than what they were used to seeing - but what everyone says about authenticity proved to be true:  when you're your genuine self, people become attracted to you and respect you, even if they disagree with precisely what you're doing, saying or believing.

And that leads me to now:  incredibly - and certainly in no way related to my efforts! - our new college President has created an initiative to infuse purposeful work across the curriculum, co-curricular activities, and student life, and I'm a happy member of the initiative's working group. My colleagues eagerly join in when I suggest a panel on the "meandering path" of life. I teach classes that I'm excited about and fully engaged in, even when they're "tried and true" courses like 101 that don't seem to have any room for personal spin. And, of course, I get to buy books that I'd be reading even if I didn't "have" to.


All this to say:  that impossible dream of creating a life you love and having your identity be inseparable - in a good way - from your work? It actually is possible. You "just" have to start from where you are, become clear about who you are, and begin to infuse bits of you into the elements of your work over which you have some control, however small those elements may be. It won't be an overnight change, but if you craft your work around your self bit by bit by bit, one day you'll wake up and realize that you're doing exactly what you are. Which is why I named my new site (still in design phase...) Working Self - it's all about the intersection of who you are and what you do.

This has been a ten year journey for me. And I certainly still have much journeying ahead. But it feels good to stop and appreciate how far I've come. And to relay how far you can come, too, if you make a mindful effort to do so.

So how about you? Are your work and your self aligned? If not, do you feel yourself moving in that direction? Or do you believe this isn't a worthwhile goal for any of us to pursue?

That's my building. Ridiculously gorgeous, isn't it? It's the main reason why, back in 2003, I took my teaching job rather than a position working with kids with autism. Shallow, huh? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was so happy to leave my teaching position that my friends threw a surprise party to celebrate (this was my chair). It's funny because looking back now, I can't see why I was so happy to leave. Just goes to show that it's not a particular job as much as your perspective on that job that actually matters.

And then I met Patrick Dempsey. Oh wait, that has nothing to do with this post. It just happened to have occurred the same month I left my teaching position so I ran across the pic while searching and figured it would pretty up the page a bit! I mean, how could he not pretty things up?

Who Are You and Why Does Your Work Matter?


Big questions, aren't they? Thankfully there's a super-quick, uber-helpful tool to prod your thinking on these very questions. Available for free! With no catches. (Say what?) I know, I was in disbelief myself. I just completed it as part of a class I'm taking with the wonderful Jenny Blake of Life After College and I couldn't wait to share it with all of you!

It's called the great I AM worksheet and it was created by Alexandra Franzen.

Snag it here, print it out, take 20 minutes and DO it! As in, NOW! (Hey, I'm letting you out of class super early - only 180 words?! From me?! - so you have the time!)

Alexandra herself says there's only one rule:  "Don't Overthink It!" You have no excuse - write fast and get 'er done. Your real work is waiting.

Can't wait to hear what you think - drop me your thoughts in the comment box below!

And let's say a big thanks to Alexandra by flocking over to follow her on Twitter. Twitter following says love.  (Hint, hint, if you're considering getting an apple for the CA101 teacher as the school year winds down...)

The Meandering Path

Welcome to our first ever CA101 video presentation! In early April, I organized a panel discussion at Bates College called "The Meandering Path" in which psychology professors (including yours truly) discussed the routes they took through their 20s. The main point of the evening was that even when people end up in the same profession, the roads they take to get there vary greatly. In addition, although you can't always see where you're heading as you're trudging through your 20s, as long as you continue forward motion, you do end up somewhere. And, if you introspect and are authentic and intentional, that somewhere is often wonderful.

The panel was taped and is now available on YouTube:


On the videos (five connected clips that run about 55 minutes in total), I provide a short introduction, then each faculty member - and our department's terrific support staff member, Brian Pfohl, who did the YouTube uploading - talks for about 5 to 10 minutes about their path, followed by brief concluding remarks from me.

If you decide to skip around, I highly recommend watching Professor Michael Sargent's segment in particular (it starts at 4:30 into the Fourth Video). And if you aren't yet bored with hearing about my path, you can see my segment starting at 5:55 on the Third Video.

I'd love your feedback after you watch it - what was helpful? What was less so? What do you wish we had discussed? I'm already mentally planning next year's panel, so your thoughts would be invaluable!

How to Have an Identity Crisis

An identity crisis sounds like an awful experience. And, sure, having one doesn't feel terrific:  you're searching, unsure of who you are or what you're going to do next, and open to more possibilities than Lindsay Lohan is to court appearances. But as we've discussed in the past, identity crises are absolutely necessary. If you don't have one (or two, or three), you'll never fully understand who you are. And thus never feel entirely fulfilled.

So here are some pointers on how to have a good old-fashioned identity crisis. And how not to.

DO:  Take action.

A lady in deep thoughts.

An identity crisis isn't about sitting around doing nothing, reading mellow poetry, and coining metaphysical sayings like "What we are is only what we think we are." Uh, no. Sure you have to be willing to look at yourself - deeply - but the best way to do that is by getting out there. As in, living life. And reflecting on that living as you go.

Psychologist Meg Jay makes this point in her book The Defining Decade, writing "Twentysomethings who take the time to explore and also have the nerve to make commitments along the way construct stronger identities. They have higher self-esteem and are more persevering and realistic."

To be is to do. Or something deep like that.

DON'T:  Search for perfection.

If you think exploring options and finding your true self will lead you to the perfect life, think again. In fact, people who have been through identity crises tend to experience more anxiety and depression than those who have avoided them (the former do experience many positive things, like greater meaning in life, so don't let this fact scare you off!).

The reality is that you're searching for a "best fit" for your life. The goal is to get in touch with your innate preferences and your ideal life conditions and to forge a life based around that knowledge. As best you can.

Even if you manage to succeed in creating that exact life - tell me your secret, if so - you'll still find things you'd like to change. That's called being human.

We're looking for good enough here people. Not "I love every aspect of my entire existence at all times." That doesn't exist for anyone.

DO:  Take your past into consideration.

So Much Awkward...

My students seem to think they'll be blank slates when they graduate from college, as if they're starting on day one of creating their identities. Not so much. Meg Jay puts it well when she says, "You've spent more than two decades shaping who you are. You have experiences, interests, strengths, weaknesses, diplomas, hang-ups, priorities. You didn't just this moment drop onto the planet."

In other words, let your past help you. Yes, there may be aspects of your old self that you want to jettison (the emo phase, anyone?), but the self-knowledge you've gained to date can help you get through an identity crisis, not hold you back. You're not at square one. It's pure histrionics to insist otherwise. (Believe me, my 20something journal is filled with just such dramatic insistences.)

DON'T:  Commit before you're ready.

Here's the classic pattern I see in my college seniors:  they come in midyear saying things like, "I have no idea what I want to do next. I'm totally lost. What's going to happen after I graduate?" Total identity crisis mode.

Then a month or two later, I see them again and prod them about the progress they've made toward answering those questions. They look at me blankly and say something like, "What? Oh, I'm all set. I've decided to be a _______ (usually something they never, ever mentioned in four years of meeting with me). No worries."

I call this the Panic Pick. Being in an identity crisis feels uncomfortable. In response you reach out and grab the first viable option that drops before you. It's roughly equivalent to beer goggles. Or wedding hook-ups.

Panic Picks don't result in identity achievement. They result in a false identity called moratorium. Which is a state you'll regret later.

DO:  Explore a wide range of options.


Bottomline:  You have to try things out in order to emerge from an identity crisis successfully. You can't think your way out of one, can't randomly cling onto something and hope it'll carry you through life, can't ignore the questions and pray they'll answer themselves. We become who we are by seeing what works and what doesn't. And then adjusting accordingly.

I think of it like buying jeans:  can you tell which will fit you just by holding them up and looking at them? Or, worse yet, grabbing the first pair you see and running to the counter with them? I certainly can't. (And even after trying on 30 pairs, I still end up with saggy loser jeans that aren't right. Sigh.)

So embrace this as a time to explore. Yes, you need to pay the bills. Do that. And then during your time off, try on jeans, as it were. Volunteer at organizations you've been curious about. Say yes to social offers. Take on low-commitment, unique part-time gigs. See what free experiential opportunities have popped up on Craigslist. Do things that shove you out of your comfort zone.

My favorite thing about my twenties (despite the angst and confusion) was all the things I did, now that I look back at them:  volunteered at a lighthouse; worked as a secretary at a creative nonprofit (the only professor who answered phones - poorly - on her off days); scored SAT essays; volunteered at a youth writing center; stayed for weeks at a time in stinky, stripped dorm rooms while learning about fiction writing. All while married, working full-time, and living in a not-so-culturally-plentiful state. Exploration is a state of mind, not a situation. You make it for yourself.

DON'T:  Consider every conceivable option.

That said, explore options within reason. As we discussed in Awash in Choices, too many choices spells psychological disaster. You'll notice that nearly everything I did in my 20s was vaguely writing related. I was feeling out the many borders of my favorite option. My actions may have looked disjointed to people around me - and often even to myself - but there was a theme.

As Meg Jay says after working with twentysomethings in clinical practice for over a decade, "I have yet to meet a twentysomething who has twenty-four truly viable options. Each person is choosing from his or her own six-flavor table, at best."

In other words, let your limited - albeit plentiful - options feel exciting rather than paralyzing. Then you can have an identity crisis worth talking about. Once its over.

What's your experience of the identity crisis? What has helped you get through it?

Related articles

From CA101:

Dodge Discomfort

Why Your Friends Have It All Figured Out (And You Don't)

Is the Search for an Authentic Self Worth the Hassle?

Finding Yourself is the Creative Challenge of Your Twenties

From others:

Identity Crisis - Theory and Research (

Are You Having an Identity Crisis? (Psychology Today)

The Defining Decade: Identity Capital Part I (Ask the Young Professional)

Is she having a crisis? Probably. But not a productive one. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are parts of our past selves we'd rather forget. But the knowledge can help us move forward. (Photo credit: IvanClow)

Ever wanted to be one of those moving statues? Now's your time to try it out. Or maybe not. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finding Yourself is The Creative Challenge of Your Twenties

My two-year-old daughter's need for creativity overrides her basic needs. She's been known to wake up at one in the morning shouting "I want to do work!" (cute except when you're the one who has to get up with her...) and to refuse dinner in deference to an intense coloring project. The urgent drive to create doesn't go away as we get older, it simply finds different outlets than crayons and scrap paper. And I'm here to argue that its outlet in the twenties is finding yourself. crayons

"Creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives," says psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in an article for Psychology Today. He's famous for his research on "flow," which we discussed in our class "Chase Happiness" as one of the bedrocks of lasting contentment.

"Of all human activities, creativity comes closest to providing the fulfillment we all hope to get in our lives," Csikszentmihalyi says. "Call it full-blast living."

As a result of its importance, the creative drive never leaves us. In late childhood it's found in a need to forge and maintain friendships, in early adulthood in the need to find love and create a family (of whatever composition), in middle adulthood in the need to nurture the next generation, and in later adulthood in the need to create one's cohesive life story. These are the psychosocial stages described by psychologist Erik Erikson, and although I've studied and taught them ad nauseum, it wasn't until watching my daughter intently apply stickers to a window pane that I realized that they're truly stages of how we direct our creative energy.

What, according to Erikson, is the direction of creative energy in our late teens and twenties? Identity. Finding ourselves. Figuring out our paths.

In other words, the creative challenge of our twenties is to invent ourselves out of the confusing rubble of our pasts, the shifting dynamics of our present, and the lofty aspirations of our future. Like we said in our last class, we must balance all of these elements and find a way to see ourselves emerge from within the overwhelming, often contradictory blur of information.

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

It's a lot like reading a Twitter feed and trying to separate the noise from the gems. We each approach this task in varying ways, and we each take a different overriding message from the same feed. So too would we each combine the exact same "life ingredients" to find a different sense of self than would our friends or family. This is why finding yourself is a creative act:  there is no one way to do it right and you must experiment in order to find the best solution for you.

Which is, indeed, hard to do. So, in fear of the process, many of us run from the challenge. We try to shove identity development aside, to tell ourselves that it doesn't matter, to convince ourselves it'll work itself out. But I'll tell you this:  if you shrink from the creative task of finding yourself, one of three things happen. Or sometimes all three. Which really stinks.

  1. You'll begin feeling vague, diffuse panic and unrest. Life just never feels settled any more and you simply can't figure out why.
  2. Other people will begin to define you. Into the vacuum of your identity, the nearest and/or strongest forces will come rushing and you'll be unable to stop them.
  3. Eventually, the question who am I will overtake your thoughts. This will happen as surely and as urgently as your need for food if you stopped eating for days on end. It will feel insistent and desperate and you'll give anything to have an answer. You may even disrupt your family life and your career and your entire existence in the press to figure it out. Problem is, this might not happen until you're in your late thirties or your forties or even your fifties if you shove off the urge during your twenties, and at those later ages there's a lot of "entire existence" to gamble in the process. Best do the figuring out now, when unsettled is the norm and you have much less to risk.

Convinced? Then we need to figure out how to stop running from ourselves and get constructive. We'll have to save that humongous task for future classes.

A good start, though, is simply embracing your innate need to be creative, and fully accepting that your creative energy is, at least for now, channeled into the task of finding yourself. Once you acknowledge those facts, you can begin to encourage the creative side of you:

Each of us is born with two contradictory sets of instructions: a conservative tendency, made up of instincts for self-preservation, self-aggrandizement, and saving energy, and an expansive tendency made up of instincts for exploring, for enjoying novelty and risk. We need both. But whereas the first tendency requires little encouragement, the second can wilt if it is not cultivated. If too few opportunities for curiosity are available, if too many obstacles are placed in the way of risk and exploration, the motivation to engage in creative behavior is easily extinguished. Sustaining high levels of curiosity is the starting point of creativity. - Vedpuriswar, reviewing Csikszentmihalyi's book Creativity:  Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention

In other words, grab your identity crayons and a stack of blank mind space and start scribbling. You need to do this as strongly as does my toddler daughter with her literal crayons. Just, please, not at one in the morning.

Class Assignment:

Where are your identity crayons? (Photo credit: dyetochange)

Too much information!

Who Are You Trying to Impress?

How affronted are you by that question? If you're feeling pretty peeved at me for asking, then you'd better read on. I was asked that question once, bluntly and without warning, by a total stranger. And it changed the direction of my life.

I was a rising college sophomore when, feeling dramatically overwhelmed by roommate tensions (oh poor meeeee!), I walked into the campus counseling center.

The counselor first asked my major.

P physics

"Physics," I said proudly. Too proudly.

He looked at me long and hard. Then he asked, "Who are you trying to impress with that major?"

I wanted to jump across the desk and throttle the guy. Who did he think he was to ask something like that? Where did he get off presuming to know me? Maybe I liked physics because I liked physics. Did that thought ever cross his rude, dense, little brain?

So I told him as much. In nicer terms, of course. He let the subject drop and we came up with a plan for dealing with the roommate. I never saw the counselor again.

End of story, right? But my mind, it simply couldn't drop the counselor's "impress" question. For days and days. And then weeks. And then months. At first I was angry, "Do you believe the nerve of that guy?" was my common refrain to friends. But gradually I started to actually ask the question to myself:  Who was I trying to impress?

The thing was, this guy - this complete stranger - had nailed my pig with his angry bird, if you will. I did like physics, to an extent, but I liked even better the reaction I received when I told people that I liked physics:  wide eyes, a puzzled expression, and then - this was the real payoff - "Wow, you must be smart."

Once I accepted the honest answer to the counselor's simple question, I promptly switched to a psychology major.

In other words, the one-off counselor saved me from a lifetime of an unsatisfying career, all with one question.

And for that reason, I'm asking you:

Who are you trying to impress?

The more offended that question makes you feel, the more likely that it's tapping into something important. (Freud got few things right, but his concept of resistance isn't half bad...)

Whether it be your career choice, your major, your address, your style of dress, your word choice, your status updates, what's your shorthand for making people think, "Wow, you must be ________"?

And that blank is almost always filled with the aspect of yourself about which you're most self-conscious. For me, that's my intelligence. For you it might be your money, or your class, or your dependence, or your fear of getting close to people. Take your pick.

English: Gold Star

This urge to impress - especially about our self-questioned characteristics - makes a lot of sense. It's ingrained in our genes, in fact.

"A hundred thousand years ago on the savannahs of Africa, if you were a solitary individual, you were dead very quickly," William B. Irvine, author of the new book A Slap in the Face:  Why Insults Hurt - And Why They Shouldn't recently told NPR. "So you joined a group. And then, once you joined a group, the question of how well you succeeded within that group was determined by your social rank within that group."

"Striving for rank within a group has become ingrained in the human psyche — praise and deference feel good," explains NPR.

In other words, we're literally built to seek approval. So is striving for "wow" such a bad thing?

Maybe not all the time. Maybe not even most of the time. It may be fine when the reaction we receive - "wow, you're witty!" or "man, you're generous" -  is as mere byproduct of living a life we genuinely love.

But when we're changing our life for the "wow" - living somewhere we can't afford, for instance, or putting on a show of extreme independence when we're dying for companionship  - then it may be a problem. In that case, the need to impress is interfering with our pursuit of what's personally meaningful and important. And when we can't seek out meaning, we fail to find lasting happiness. We might also fail to do the "unique and distinctive work" we're each meant to do.

"If you want to have a good life, you have to overcome that evolutionary wiring," Irvine said in the NPR interview. He gave the example of our penchant for fatty, sweet food; while this desire was helpful for our ancestors' survival, it's harmful in contemporary society where fats and sugars are omnipresent.

There was no doubt that, for me, gradually shedding my shorthands for "intelligence" has been vitally important to living a more authentic, richer life, and to doing work that is in line with my values and deep-seated goals. I still have more smartness shorthands to cast off. But the counselor started me on the road.

You may be wondering whether I ever thanked him, the man who changed the course of my life with one simple question. About nine months after our meeting, I was taking a study break when I received a campus-wide email. The counselor had passed away, the President announced. The email didn't say how, it didn't say if it was expected, it just said he was gone. I'd only met the man once, but I felt a profound sense of emptiness and loss.

I gave the emotion some time to rattle around within me, said some silent words in his memory, and then forced myself to go back to studying for my big exam. In psychology.

To me, physics = uber-brainy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For what characteristic - if any- are you trying to earn a gold star? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is The Search For An Authentic Self Worth The Hassle?

Crises stink. They're full of questioning, futile consideration of options that will be discarded, and feelings of being downright confused, lost, and miserable. Such fun. But as we've discussed in the past, identity crises are vitally important to finding your authentic self. No crisis, no true identity. As we've also talked about, many people sidestep the whole crisis issue by adopting the identity of someone around them or simply jumping on the first "self" they think up. I call this path Rent-An-Identity. And as anyone who has been to Rent-A-Center can attest, rentable equipment just ain't as good as the real thing.

Or is it?

The thing is, I've always presented Rent-An-Identity negatively (which is technically, and ho-hum-ingly, called identity foreclosure). In reality, it's not so clear cut. In fact, the psychologist who came up with the term "emerging adulthood" - the man who, in essence, identified the quarterlife crisis before it was named that - doesn't think renting an identity is such a bad thing. He says:

Most scholars on identity tend to see exploration as a necessary part of forming a healthy identity and therefore to portray foreclosure in negative terms. However...some people have a distinct ability they recognize when still young, and they happily build on it until it becomes satisfying work in emerging adulthood. In a way they are fortunate, because they have definitely found a kind of work they enjoy and wish to do as adults, whereas emerging adults who go through a process of exploration may find such work but may not. - Jeffrey Arnett, Emerging Adulthood (2004)

Fortunate? Fortunate? <Pause for me to have a panic attack.>

To throw an even bigger wrench in my argument that an authentic self is worth fighting for (and miserably groping around for), people who have a Rent-An-Identity look a lot like people who have found their real identity. In fact, they score exactly the same on:

  • —Self-esteem
  • Belief that they're in control of life's events (called internal locus of control)
  • Satisfaction with life
  • —Psychological well-being
  • Purpose in life

Even worse, people who have found their authentic self have MORE anxiety and depression then people who have adopted someone else's identity. In other words, identity crises bring up a lot of issues, even after the crisis has passed.

We will stick tog...

Yikes. This isn't looking good for my claim that identity crises are worth having.

But wait, before you click back to YouTube while shaking your head that I've misled you, there's more to the picture. And it's important.

Although people who have found their authentic self look similar to Rent-An-Identity folks in many ways, they don't look the same in ALL ways. And I would argue (actually, I will argue) that the differences are no small thing.

People who have a true identity score higher on:

Big deal, you may be thinking. Are these three little things really worth having a crisis over?

In a word:  yes.

In many words:  absolutely, without a doubt, are you crazy to ever question me, YES!

It's abundantly clear where I fall on the issue of whether the search for an authentic self is worth it, but let me try to convince you.


Or rather, let Aristotle try to convince you (he probably has more pull than I do, huh?). Long before there was Career Avoidance 101, Aristotle was presenting his own set of lectures on the good life. (But his class so lacked a sense of humor.) He spent much of his time considering the highest human good. And guess what he believed it was? Eudaimonic well-being. As in, the type of well-being that people with an authentic self experience. The highest human good. How can you argue with that?

Man, you are feisty.

Alright then, how about something a bit more recent? Contemporary psychologists agree that if you want to be truly happy, you need to find meaning in life, self-actualization and/or eudaimonic well-being, as writer Ilona Boniwell discusses in her terrific article The Concept of Eudaimonic Well-Being. We talked about this ourselves in a past class.

To sum up:

  1. To find your authentic self, you have to go through an identity crisis (a period of searching and questioning).
  2. If you decide to avoid having a crisis (they are messy things, after all), you end up with a Rent-An-Identity (identity foreclosure).
  3. People with true identities and rented identities look a lot alike, but they differ in their sense of living up to their potential.
  4. Living up to one's potential is related, undeniably, to lasting happiness. Nothing else - pleasures, social admiration, money, things, status - can substitute.
  5. So to be happy, you have to find your authentic self, and you have to go through the uncomfortable crisis process to get there.
  6. Eminent developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett (quoted above) is wrong. Oh wait, this last point is just for me; it's fun for us lowly psych people to attack the big guns. You know, just because we can.

So did I convince you? Or are you heading down to the Rent-An-Identity-Center tomorrow? I'm warning you:  it's nearly impossible to get those microscopic bugs and dead skin cells out of rental identities. I mean, yuck.

Schwartz, S. J. (2004). Construct validity of two identity status measures: The EIPQ and the EOM-EIS-II.  Journal of Adolescence, 27, 477-483.


Schwartz, S. J., Luyckx, K., Beyers, W., Soenens, B., Zamboanga, B. L., Forthun, L. F., Hardy, S. A., Vazsonyi, A. T., Ham, L. S., Kim, S. Y., Whitbourne, S. K., & Waterman, A. S. (2011). Examining the light and dark sides of emerging adults' identity:  A study of identity status differences in positive and negative psychosocial functioning. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40, 839-859.


Steger, M. F., Oishi, S., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 43-52.

These hippos may look equally happy, but only one is actually satisfied with life. Or something like that. (Photo credit: Thai Jasmine (

Are you really going to argue with this guy? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do Childhood Dreams Matter?

If you're in need of a life lesson, an Adam Sandler movie can provide it. Parenting? Excruciating but rewarding. Growing up? You're never too old to make progress. True love? Transcends sex, memory and bad singing. Deutsch: Adam Sandler in Berlin, 26.08.2009

When it comes to the complex issue of career choice, the Sand Man comes through once again. Mr. Deeds is, in essence, one big career manifesto. Granted, one sprinkled with disconcerting attempts at humor about a man's dead, blackened foot, but what career manifesto isn't?

In the final climactic scene - spoiler alert! (does that term even apply to Adam Sandler movies?) - Sandler's character convinces a room of stockholders to reject a corporate sale by rousing their memories of their childhood dream jobs. Some of which are downright unpleasant. All the same, the message is clear:  follow your childhood dreams; they hold your truth.

The question is, do they really?

After all, there are a million reasons why your childhood dream jobs are impractical and out of date. For instance, I dreamed of being a fashion designer when I was little, and spent countless hours sketching designs and sewing old clothes together to make haute couture. (My greatest masterpiece? An old pink t-shirt with a neon green scarf protruding from its center and half of a ruffly orange skirt sewn to the bottom. I mean, really, Versace, call me.) The thing is, I'm the least fashionable person you'll ever meet. (I just discarded my last top from high school. Despite its hodgepodge of geometric shapes and Teen Spirit caked into the pits, I still insisted on taking it to Goodwill because it was a perfectly good shirt.) Point is, I would've stunk as a fashion designer. So does that mean my childhood dream is totally invalid?

Well, if we're looking to avoid a fulfilling career, then yes, we should convince ourselves that childhood dreams are nothing more than the unrealistic spit-up of an underdeveloped mind.

But if we're in the career search to actually find some greater truth (read: living up to our fullest potentials), then maybe Mr. Deeds can teach us a thing or two.

When we look beyond their manifest content, childhood dream jobs may be ripe with lessons. In fact, they may be the best clues to the genetic career inclinations we discussed in the last lecture. Before parents and society and teachers began to tell us what we should be, or what we needed to be concerned about (money! status! a McMansion!) - in other words, before our genetic propensities were covered up with a ton of confusing voices - we had our dreams of being a firefighter, an astronaut, an ornithologist (I was weird). Childhood dreams are, if you will, the bread crumbs leading us to our genetic home. And thus to the unique and distinctive work we should be doing in this world.

The actual job itself is, for the most part, meaningless. It may give you a clue or two to your interests, but if that were completely true, we'd all love dinosaur bones way down deep inside. And I so don't.

What I find more valuable is to consider what our childhood dreams can tell us about the more nuanced aspects of career, the facets that tend to stay constant throughout our lives, even as we undergo our three to five career changes. Especially when we consider the answers when considering our full range of childhood dream jobs.

  • How much cognitive complexity do I prefer to handle (or even need to have)? In other words, is The Walking Dead about my limit of complexity for the day?
  • What types of work do I like to engage in? Work involving discovery or creation or logic or radical subversion?
  • Do I like to use my motor skills? Am I good at using them? If so, do I prefer gross motor or fine motor activity? (Put another way, would I be better at kicking down doors or picking locks?)
  • What level of physical activity do I like to have in my day? Do I prefer to be confused for the chair in which I sit, or do I enjoy offending people from the scent of the sweat I work up throughout any given day?
  • What type of people do I prefer to be around?* Those who are artistic or entrepreneurial or conventional or pruddish?
  • What sort of work environment do I like?* An office? A lab? A setting with children present? A maximum security facility?
  • Do I prefer to work alone or to engage in teamwork? (Read: can I stand others, and can they stand me?)
  • Is there a certain geographic setting that I prefer? A big city, a rural setting, a remote site, somewhere abroad, a secret bunker underground?
  • Are there certain work conditions I'd prefer?* Do I want certain times of year off? Do I want to work at odd hours, or  conventional 9 to 5 hours? Do I like to have someone who gives structure to my day (read: a boss), or do I like to create structure for myself? Do I like to wear clothes while working?

Of course our childhood selves didn't consider most - if any - of these questions when we were "picking" a dream career. (Although even that is debatable; my two-year-old contemplates the "wearing clothes" question on a daily basis, to which she answers a resounding no. Yup, we're in big trouble.) Regardless of conscious consideration, I'd make the claim that we naturally gravitated to jobs that matched our innate propensities on many of these dimensions. Perhaps not all, but many.

So when people scoff and say that childhood careers are meaningless to the adult job search, they are, in some ways, correct. The what doesn't matter. At all. Nobody would want me designing their clothes.

But the why, that may matter. Perhaps more than we allow ourselves to realize.

What do you think:  Do you believe that childhood dreams have importance for our career search, or are they simply the impractical spewings of an immature brain?

*Items derived from What Color is Your Parachute? by Dick Bolles.

The career guru himself. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is Your Career In Your Genes?

“I have absolutely no idea what I want to be.” If I had an angry employee for every time I heard a student say that, I’d be Marissa Mayer. The thing is, I’m not buying it. OK, sure, you don’t know exactly how to use your talents and interests to create a career that affords more than a steady diet of Taco Bell. I get that. But don’t tell me you have no clue what your abilities and tendencies are. You've known them since you were a little kid. They're right there in your genes.

We often hear dramatic tales of identical twins reared apart who discover one another and realize they've been living parallel lives. Like the pair of New Jersey volunteer firefighters who both used to work for lawn companies before earning their livings selling fire-related equipment. In reality, cases like this are rare; identical twins don't usually share the exact same careers, regardless of whether they were raised apart or together.

That said, career choice does seem to be "in our genes," at least to some extent. Researchers estimate that genetics explain about one-third of our variability in career choice. And while identical twins raised separately don't usually have the same job, they do tend to pick jobs that are similar in:

  • —  Complexity levels
  • —  Motor skills
  • —  Physical demands

In addition, about half of our variation in interests is due to genes. In other words, why do you detest Justin Bieber while your friend loves him? It's about half genetically determined. And half good taste.

Finally, whether a person decides to engage in tasks that are entrepreneurial, artistic or conventional also seems to be largely determined by our biological makeup.

Diane Arbus photograph, Identical Twins, Rosel...

This suggests that if we want to have a fulfilling career, we should follow our inner yearnings. In fact, about 30% of our job satisfaction itself is attributable to genes. Twin researcher and author of the blog Twofold, Nancy Segal, explains these findings by saying, "People in general may better understand their level of job satisfaction in terms of how well their abilities and opportunities coincide.” In other words, if you use your innate abilities in your occupation, you're likely to have greater job satisfaction.

Even more of a head scratcher is the finding that our tendency to switch jobs and careers may also be partly genetic. According to twin research, about 36% of job change tendencies and 26% of career change tendencies are due to what's inside us. In other words, if you're a job hopper, it might not be your jobs that are the issue. It may be you. (There's a tidy fact to keep from the rents...)

I think it makes sense that career choice may be partly genetic, from an evolutionary perspective. Our species is most likely to survive and flourish if we have individuals suited for the many tasks survival requires. If everyone is great at self-promotion but lacks the problem-solving skills to investigate whether a dead battery is in a broken flashlight, we're in big trouble. I mean, what would we do with a society full of The Situations running around? It's no wonder our genes are varied, causing some of us to be inclined to create companies while others of us are content to be worker bees.

So modern society, with its push toward high status, high income careers - "Be a doctor! Be a lawyer! Be an insanely overpaid bank executive!" - is undermining the natural order of things. For our species to thrive, we should each be what we're meant to be. Lo and behold, Civil Rights advocate Benjamin Mays - who I profiled in a previous post - was actually speaking like a geneticist and evolutionary psychologist when he said, "Every man and woman is born into the world to do something unique and something distinctive and if he or she does not do it, it will never be done."

Of course "genes are not destiny" and there's a whole lot of room for environmental influences on our career choices. There's also no "career gene," of course; like all complex traits, career-related characteristics are polygenic. That said, during the career search, it can't hurt to pause to consider the interests, skill sets, and inclinations that are as much a part of you as your hair color and height. Who knows, you might just glance at your designer genes and get Lucky.

What do you think:  can you identify some interests, abilities and desires that have been present since you were young? Do you believe these are a part of your genetic makeup?

Good Read:

Born Together—Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study by Nancy L. Segal Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012.

Betsworth, D. G., Bouchard, T. J. Jr., Cooper, C. R., Grotevant, H. D., Hansen, J. C, Scarr, S., & Weinberg, R. A. (1994). Genetic and environmental influences on vocational interests assessed using adoptive and biological families and twins reared apart and together. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 44, 263-278.


Moloney, D. P., Bouchard, T. J., Jr., & Segal, N. L. (1991). A genetic and environmental analysis of the vocational interests of monozygotic and dizygotic twins reared apart. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 39, 76-109.


Segal, N. L. (1999). Twin Studies Show...The Career of Dreams May Be the Career of Your Genes. Psychology Today, 54-70.

Mirror career choice too? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Twentysomething Identity Crisis

Listen up, class:  you're getting rid of your professor for a day. (My god, you could at least wait on the hoots and hollers until I'm out the room.) Today we have our first substitute teacher, Ms. Ashley Sapp from Chaos and Words. Ms. Sapp recently approached me, saying she wanted to work with you rowdy bunch. Seeing as how I enjoy her lyrical, impassioned blog - and given the fact that she's an actual twentysomething (read: not an old codger like yours truly) - I thought this would be great. Please give Ms. Sapp a warm Career Avoidance 101 welcome by clicking over to her blog, engaging in some thoughtful post-lecture class discussion, and refraining from throwing spitballs! I'll be back on Friday to dole out penalties accordingly (no recess for you!). What is the identity of the twenty-something? Why does this identity constantly shift?

We feel the need to fit ourselves into categories that make sense because we've got one foot in our adolescence and the other in adulthood - this is a confusing time, and we can end up feeling split between two worlds and not quite like "ourselves". Sometimes, we don’t even know what it means to feel like ourselves. We are still figuring things out, and that’s fine. Some adults don’t have things completely figured out, and that’s also okay. There is incredible pressure to be someone. Particularly growing into a twenty-something and moving through such a defining decade, we don’t always know who that person should be.

Question Mark Graffiti

As a child, we're asked what we want to be when we grow up. This question is a big deal. At younger ages, these answers can range anywhere from an astronaut to a cowboy to an actress to a race-car driver (or whatever the case may be).

I remember taking little quizzes that told us which profession we would most likely excel at depending on our personalities. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a singer and performer, and because that’s what I wanted, my quiz answers reflected this. Eventually I heard a recording of myself singing (you know, practicing) and realized that I’m totally tone-deaf. Some dreams just aren’t meant to be.

However, there is a difference between having certain talents (or in my case, not having those talents) and feeling as though we have to fit a certain mold. Parents and teachers can often times play a large role in this, wanting us to become "successful people". What exactly does this mean? Many times, it’s based off monetary success, so careers such as lawyers and doctors are considered the best route to take. Yet, wouldn't any career that makes someone happy be considered a success?

I’m a writer through-and-through, but I’ve still been asked, “Okay, but what are you going to be?” as though my answer was a joke. I’m sure I’m not alone in confessing what my dream is only to have it be deemed ludicrous. We go from declaring ourselves astronauts as children to having that same dream smashed as being too far-reaching (there’s some irony for you).  When does this transition happen? Obviously, some people go on to become all those things.

No, we are not all destined to have out-of-this-world careers, but my point here is who is anyone to tell you what is right for you, your dreams? We made it through the awkward years, the bullies, the drama, the stresses of middle and high school only to be told when we finally reach the end that our dreams are not realistic. We have to start being serious, go to college, get a job. However, it does not always work out the same way for everyone – we can go about these stages at our own pace (or skip some altogether). There is a reason we are individuals, and we don’t all go about living in the same manner.

One thing I’ve learned, though, is that people have a lot of opinions on what you should be doing. Apparently to some what I am  is not good enough – it’s not who I should be. So here’s the number one lesson I can perhaps provide to you today:

Question mark in Esbjerg

It does not matter what anyone else says you should do with your life. It is you who must live it day in and day out, and the only way you’ll ever be satisfied waking up each day is if you do what feels right to you. Your number one concern should be to make you happy, not to satisfy someone else’s idea of you. That will never last. The best way for your life to have any sort of impact is for it to be undeniably, completely, messily, and unabashedly yours.

We have been taught and conditioned that whatever we do for a living is what defines us, makes up our identity, and deems us successful. Perhaps that is why our identities shift so often, but I think it's our perceptions that shift rather than our actual identity. For instance, I'm the same person I was when I worked in retail, but I wasn't defined by that – that does not make up who I am as a person, my morals, my thoughts, my inspirations. Lessons were taken from the experience, certainly (like patience), but that's not my entire make-up.

A career should be something that motivates you and inspires you, and retail just did not do that for me. On that note, retail is not an easy job to have, but people tend to rank it rather low and as being "unsuccessful". That's simply not true. I have a friend who actually enjoys working retail, and I say all the more power to him. When a career coincides with how you feel about yourself and what you desire out of life, I think you’ve made your match.

Going after a certain career can be terrifying and amazing at the same time. We fear we’ll fail, we fear we’re not good enough, and we’re unsure we’re making the right choice at times. Try to remember, though, that whatever career you choose is not your entire identity. Your core is not made up of dollar signs and nine-to-fives.

So if whatever path you choose isn’t right the first time, that’s okay, too! My path of singing was quite short-lived, but I have that notch in my belt and found a different route to take that is right for me. The identity you have is always there, but paths tend to bend and twist and go off-roading at times. Don’t let it become a crisis.

Will the real you please stand up? (Photo credit: Bilal Kamoon)

Hmm, hmm, hmm. (Photo credit: alexanderdrachmann)

Self-Focus as a Selfless Act


We all know the common characterization of Millennials:  as self-centered, self-absorbed, narcissistic little twerps who don't bother to look up from social media long enough to gaze beyond their navels. Overlooking for a moment the gross generalizations being made here - and the evidence that such assumptions are untrue - I say:  if you guys do manage to be self-focused in your twenties, more power to you. And more power to society.


I think the most selfless thing you can do during your twenties is look inward to find your authentic self. You see, my favorite quotation in all the world, the one that encapsulates my life's philosophy, is this one:

I believe this quotation with all of my heart (and in a future post I'll lay out my science-based rationale for believing in it).

At the core of Mays' sentiment is the assertion that one must first find their "unique and distinctive thing" in order to then be able to fulfill it. His statement "born into this world" also implies that the "unique and distinctive thing" is WITHIN us, not without. It's as internal as our personality, our preference for pet puppies over pet tarantulas, our feeling that Snooki is more than a tad bit sketchy.  In other words, the only way to find the "unique and distinctive thing" is to look inward, navel gaze, and be a little, well, self-absorbed.

Not forever. No. We're not talking some Peter Pan-ish suspended childhood here. We're talking doing the work of self-reflection - the hard, uncomfortable work that, when done well, triggers an identity crisis - at a time when it is developmentally appropriate. And guess what? In our contemporary Industrialized society, the developmentally appropriate time is now:  in your twenties.

Was the world really better when the age of first marriage and first child were wildly lower? Did people (especially women...) in those generations have the time and space to find their "unique and distinctive thing"? I'd argue - as a mother who knows how one's sense of self can become, shall we say, removed from consciousness while parenting a young child - that much important work may have been left undone. Why else would Oprah have an entire network? There's a big Confusion & Crisis market in a generation that never got to stop and think.

If I personally hadn't had my twenties to figure out my All I Want To Be Statement before jumping into parenthood, my life may be taking a very different trajectory today. For instance, I wouldn't do the sort of advising and teaching I do now, taking Mays' quotation implicitly into consideration at every turn. Or, say, writing this blog. (Which, if you're real students who love snow days and instances of professorial illness, you may see as a decidedly hopeful possibility.)

I can see some of you raising your hands:  yes, good point, many people in contemporary society don't get the luxury to be self-focused in their twenties. Very true. But the way I see it, you can either lament this fact and feel guilty, or you can use this cognizance to make you grateful for the opportunity you have and give you the determination to make the most of it.

And this isn't some insignificant opportunity. Let's consider who stated my beloved quotation. Benjamin E. Mays, the once-President of Morehouse College, knew of what he spoke. Mays' most famous student certainly sorted out his "unique and distinctive thing" and how our nation - and our world - would've been different had this student left his work undone. You see, it was Mays who introduced Gandhi and other key philosophies to none other than Martin Luther King, Jr.

In an odd twist, Mays also happens to be an alumnus of the very college where I teach. I fell in love with his quotation while miserably floundering through grad school. Then I stumbled on my job at Bates College and, years later, put it together that Mays was a Bates alum. (Apparently I can be painfully slow-on-the-uptake:  I often walked past the residential building named after Mays on my way to my car. Uh...what was I saying about twenties navel-gazing?)

All in all, don't apologize for your natural tendencies to introspect, to "find yourself," to figure out what the hell you're doing with your life. This is your time to do it. Your family, your community, and perhaps even the entire world, will be better for it. Being self-focused now is the most selfless thing you can do for later.

Have you found your "unique and distinctive thing"? Or at least have some semblance of a clue about what it might be?

Why Your Friends Have it All Figured Out (And You Don't)

Because they're lying. To you. To their parents. To themselves. I say this for three reasons:

  1. Having it "all figured out" is a fallacy, which we've discussed in the past. Distrust anyone who tells you otherwise. They're either actively hiding their reality from you, or they're passively hiding it from themselves (denial is a powerful, powerful thing). Lives are simply too dynamic to have everything perfectly arranged simultaneously. Ever.
  2. It takes work to figure "much" of life out, and, these days, that work takes most of the twenties. (We can, and will, get into why it takes so long nowadays, but that's another day's lecture.)
  3. Taking on others' desires and goals looks identical to having figured things out for yourself. You read it right:  you can LOOK like you have it all figured out - and truly BELIEVE you have it all figured out - by adopting the interior life of people around you (most often your parents). This is what psychologists call "identity foreclosure" (yes, we finally get to talk about foreclosure without getting depressed about the economy). This point is so juicy that we'll spend the rest of our lecture here.

Identity foreclosure is a sneaky little devil. It completely imitates true identity achievement; i.e., knowing who the heck you are. The only - and key - difference lies in the process to get there. To achieve a sense of identity, you have to go through a crisis. There's no simply no other route to finding yourself. (If you've been sleeping through class, review the class notes to brush up on crises).

To reach foreclosure, on the other hand, you don't go through any searching or struggling or weighing of options. You simply wake up and know what you're doing. Ta da!

The difference between identity achievement and foreclosure is a lot like that between, say, Halle Berry and Tori Spelling. Some people have to work to become actresses; some, well, don't.

I certainly don't blame anyone for being foreclosed. I myself was foreclosed until I was 29. And I didn't even realize it.

Cover of "Hand-Me-Down Dreams: How Famili...

I'd been teaching for five years when my mom watched me sit in the faculty section at Bates' commencement. When I found her after the ceremony, she had tears in her eyes. "I always wanted to be a teacher," she said. "And now here you are! I am so, so proud."

I quit a year later.

It's not that I didn't want my mom to be proud (I'm not that mean). It's that, when my mom choked up from the fulfillment of her dream deferred, it all clicked:  why I felt discontent in my work, why I always vaguely felt like I was doing it for someone else, why I was resentful of a position for which so many would've traded their 1st edition Harry Potter book. How had I never put this together before? Simple:  because foreclosures are usually super subtle. 

Most of us are too independent and rebellious to follow our parents' blatant demands to "become a doctor" or "become a lawyer." But we hear our parents' off-hand remarks about how artists don't earn anything, we see the selective attention our parents bestow on certain people our age (cooing about our cousin the accountant while ignoring our cousin the history major), and we notice our parents' ever-so-subtle facial expressions and bodily tension when we bring up certain career paths. We're designed to read our parents' cues; it's what ensures our survival as babies and young children. As adults, though, tracking our parents' subtle signals is what keeps us trapped.

So what do we do?

Foreclosure is like coming across an  "I Was a Finalist in Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Challenge!" t-shirt at the thrift store (score!). When you wear it, the pats on the back and accolades for "your" accomplishment feel great at first. Over time, though, you start to feel unsettled, like something is off. Eventually you chuck the shirt; you simply can't wear it in good conscience any longer. Then you decide either:

  • That you'd rather wear a shirt that is more personally meaningful to you (who they heck cares if you ate a ton of hot dogs?).
  • OR, that you really would like to wear that hot dog shirt and you start training to earn your own.

I did the latter. Well, not literally! (Yuck.) After quitting Bates, I spent a year pursuing my dream of becoming a writer, which wasn't all it was cracked up to be. While I was wallowing in that realization, I simultaneously found myself missing my good ol' teaching job. When I started bringing photocopied hand-outs to mothering groups (I kid you not), I knew it was time to make a change. Fortunate for me, Bates asked me to come back. Ever since I have loved teaching, without any hint of ambivalence. Because now it's not for my mom. It's for me.

In short, I stepped back, had my crisis, and earned my career.

So if your friends seem to have it all figured out while you're thrashing about, struggling to find your future, don't envy them. Feel badly for them. They have a long, hard road ahead. And they don't even know it yet.

Your Assignment:

Read Hand-Me-Down Dreams:  How Families Influence Our Career Paths and How We Can Reclaim Them by Mary Jacobsen. Then scour your life for signs of foreclosure.

Your reading assignment (Amazon)n't even realize it.

Ten Years of Living (Part of) My Dream

Remember how you used to get your teacher off track by asking her personal questions so that she'd cover no testable material? Well today's that day. On Beating a Quarterlife Crisis, Kristi Eaton recently asked about how we figure out where to live. This got me thinking about when I was 24 and completely lost. In other words, feeling like many of you do. And to prove that I work hard not to dole out ideas and advice that I don't struggle to follow myself (despite my quip in my profile, I abhor when people do this), here's a portion of my twentysomething tale. We shall call it The Residential Portion.

At 24 I was enrolled in a PhD program I hated, about to earn a non-terminal master's degree (AKA:  A Degree Worth Nothing in the Real World), and had no prospects for life after dropping out of grad school. But I knew - knew intensely - that I had to quit (which is a rich topic for another post; quitting is an awesome skill to have).

The only stable part of my life was my husband, whom I'd met in high school and had hung onto during the tumultuous "seeing other people" college years before marrying "young" at 22. (By that point, we'd already been together for seven years so we didn't feel young.)

But my career - along with my purpose, my dreams, my goals, my entire existence for being - was a total wash. I'd done what you all are fearing so hard:  I'd gone down the "wrong" path.

Washed up at 24. <tsk, tsk, tsk>

So I did what any reasonable twentysomething would do:  I moved to Maine.


Wait. Maine? Don't you mean New York City or Los Angeles or some other glamorous hot spot? Certainly you don't mean Maine. What twentysomething wants to live in Maine?

Portland, Maine

Well, not many, that's true; Maine suffers from an outflux of young people, called the savory term "brain drain" (I always picture chunky blood going down a sink when I hear that...yuck). But I'd dreamed of living in Maine since I was in 7th grade. It was my one true thing. Well, other than always wanting to be a writer, but that was so not happening. I mean, who takes a creative path with no guarantee of income and a certainty of rejection? No one reasonable, especially not someone with the logical mind that gets you enrolled in a social science doctoral program.

Since high school, my husband and I had said we'd move to Maine when we retired. There we were, though, just two years into marriage, our lives in complete disarray - me having panic attacks from the misery of grad school; him working for Enterprise Rent-A-Car after failing one of the standardized teaching exams in New York (there's the twentysomething dream: washing cars while wearing a suit & tie. Woo hoo!) - and so we looked at each other and said, "Why not now?"

You know, because 25 is the new 65. Or something like that.

I quit my graduate program, the hubby arranged for a transfer with Enterprise, and on June 1, 2003 we moved just outside Portland, Maine.

I had no job. I had no prospects. But I was in Maine! My dream state!

And why was it my dream from the tender age of 12? Oh, you know, because of reading. I'll let your mind fill in the blank with some literary classic set in the state (perhaps some of Longfellow's poetry? Or The Country of the Pointed Firs? Or even The Beans of Egypt, Maine?) Alright, alright, it was a teen horror trilogy The Fire, The Storm and Something I Forget. Oh yeah, high class reading!

All I know is that when I read about the rocky coasts, the foggy days, the lobster boats, I felt in my core I belong there. It's an inexplicable feeling, but I am a firm believer that we all hold this about at least one thing - whether it be what we want to do for fun, or for career, or where to live, or what type of people we want to be around. You can try to analyze it and figure out why you feel it but you'll never figure it out. And you should not; that would be to disembowel the unicorn.

Such is my draw to Maine. In my decade here, the dream of Maine has given way to reality - some of it harsh, like ice dams on the roof that leak into your home and make your ceilings dangle like utters - which was my greatest fear when moving here:  that I'd be sorely disappointed and no longer have a comforting vision to cling to during hard times.

Here's what I discovered, though:  It's much more painful to keep yourself from something you want, out of fear that it might not work out, than to live with the realities you encounter when you let yourself see all of the bumps and warts and beautiful ugliness of that thing.

All in all, it could be said that my life has, so far, unfolded completely differently than I'd expected.

As a child - a progressive modern girl who soaked up Free to Be You and Me - I thought I would secure my career, then find a man, then have kids, eventually retire, then move to Maine, then pursue the hobby of writing.

In actuality, I found a man, moved to Maine, pursued writing, had a kid. And eventually, I suppose, there'll be retirement, but I don't much care about that since I'm already writing in Maine.

This is how a life is constructed:  one bit at a time, not necessarily in the order you planned. When everything is falling apart, you can choose to identify and develop the one thing that you know is true and real and swells from somewhere deep within you and then let the other pieces come in their due time. Or you can cling to your plan. And be miserable.

By taking the "wrong" path in my life, I found the right one. If I'd done career "right" the first go round, I'd still be living somewhere else, doing something else, longing for Maine, longing to write, longing to be.

Instead I am being. And loving it.

I wish you as much. And more.

And now back to the material...

The Way Life Should Be. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)