The puzzle

As I look back, particularly on the chaos of the past fifteen years, I’m always a bit surprised by the fact almost everything that’s happened in my life fits together in a such an orderly way. One thing, whether an achievement or an error, led directly and inevitably to the next. Had I changed even one decision, I would not be where I am now… or even who I am now.

If I hadn’t married the first time, I would not have worked on the 2002 Connecticut gubernatorial campaign and met one of my mentors, Art House. Also, if not for the campaign, I may not have divorced and needed a job when I did. This led me to Washington D.C., where I gained banking experience – experience that qualified me to work for Art in public affairs for a bank in Connecticut. If I hadn’t been working for a bank in communications, my dear friend Amy would not have offered me a job at Citi in New York. Had I not taken that opportunity, I would not have met my husband and moved to England.

At the time, it often felt like the winds of chance were blowing me to and fro with no discernable plan; but in retrospect, it all seems so organized – each step clearly rising from the one before. Even experiences that seemed like outliers have proved themselves important (my year-long stint at a PR agency not only taught me useful skills, but introduced me to people who have been good friends and enormously helpful).

Yet, all that personal moving and growing and puzzle-piece fitting slowed to a crawl after Conall was born. Of course, parenthood makes you grow and learn, but this is a different kind of personal development.

Then…

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I returned to the sport of diving to deal with subconscious prodding, which took the form of recurring dreams. When I discovered I simply could not dive any more, not because of my mind or body conditioning, but due to some strange allergy, I thought that was it for me; I could once again allow diving to sink back into my past. I would never have guessed I was just at the start of a new chapter, the first words of which were, “Would you be interested in coaching?”

Fitting it in

I feel invigorated after every session at Dacorum Diving Club and love working with all the coaches and divers. In particular, the head coach’s son, a rising star with unlimited potential, reminded me of all the reasons I was once so passionate about the sport. Though I’ve found new friends, new skills and new challenges, I initially thought this was just a hobby – an outlier – not a piece of the puzzle. I was wrong.

Shortly after I started coaching, I read an op ed in the New York Times by David Brooks, called Genius: The Modern View. Brooks writes the following:

“The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.”

This struck a deep chord in me. ‘Ah ha!’ I thought, ‘This explains it!’ The premise has significant implications for any sports club trying to develop young athletes, so shyly, I sent it to our head coach (HC). I didn’t know him well, yet, and wasn’t sure what he’d think. My hope was that we’d have an interesting discussion about it, and maybe it would help us work with our young divers in a different way. Well, his interest exceeded my best expectations.

I’m embarrassed to say that despite my fascination with the subject, it never occurred to me to purchase the books referenced in the op ed to learn more. But the same is not true of HC. He told me he’d ordered not only The Talent Code and Talent is Overrated, but also Bounce, a book Amazon had suggested. He seemed a little surprised I hadn’t bought the books and immediately offered to lend them to me. I am extremely fortunate that HC has a curious mind, as well as a strong drive to learn and excel. Because when he shared the books he’d bought, that’s when this outlier fit back into my life’s puzzle…

If it hadn’t been for the recurring dreams, I wouldn’t have gone to diving. If I hadn’t gone to diving, I wouldn’t have met HC. If I hadn’t met HC, I never would have read these books. Without these books, I would not truly understand what it takes to succeed. These books have completely changed my outlook, my approach to personal goals, and even my parenting style.

That’s the exciting thing about life: even when you’re traveling a path that seems familiar or mundane or irrelevant, you can suddenly find yourself in a momentous place and come to realize that whether you knew it or not, your steps were always taking you where you needed to go. That’s why we must follow our inner promptings, even when they seem nonsensical. (Like going back to diving at 35.)

In part 2 of this post (next week), I’ll talk about the ideas in these books and why they have affected me in such a profound way.

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What do I want to be when I grow up?

When I was little, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t know what to do with my life.  When I was in kindergarten, I wrote in my “autobiography” that I would be a lawyer (and then drew a picture of a judge).  I also thought of becoming a primatologist in Africa or an international lawyer protecting endangered species (these were all career choices made by my pre-10-yr-old self).

In my college essays, I told admissions officers that I would personally help make the United Nations into an effective inter-governmental body (refer back to previous post on “ego”).  I entered Cornell as an international relations major, but soon was forced to accept my complete inability to speak foreign languages.  Switching to government and history, I planned to go work on The Hill in Washington DC.  The summer after sophomore year, I interned for the Last Lion (Senator Edward Kennedy) and the writer James Fallows, then, the following fall, for Micheal Martin (currently leader of the Irish political party, Fianna Fail).  By the end of senior year, I was sure I wanted to write about politics.

After I graduated, I briefly worked at US News and World Report, but life intervened, and I left the job prematurely.   I next tried education (too bureaucratic), campaigning (loved it, but hard to make a living), Wall Street sales (I couldn’t sell water in the desert), corporate communications (too constraining) and novel writing (loved it, but again, hard to make a living).

So, here I am… I’m 35.  And I STILL don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

Are you your job?

Many people define themselves by their profession: “I’m a _____” (fill in lawyer, doctor, engineer, programmer, artist, writer, analyst, manager, salesman, etc., etc.).  I don’t know what to say about myself.  Am I a writer?  Yes, it’s what I do… but, it isn’t, really, “my job.”

There is more to life than our job, but it usually says a lot about who we are.  The lucky among us are passionate about what they do.  They never “have” to go to “work.”  They choose to do what they love.  This is ideal.  But for others, their job is just a way to pay the bills.  Nothing wrong with that… unless you want something more.

My sister once sent me a quote by the philosopher Howard Thurman, who said, ““Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”  The challenge, though, can be figuring out what makes us come alive!

What happens when you find your passion, but it doesn’t find you?

As I wrote the other day, among my favorite quotes is this, from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist:

Before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way. It does this not because it is evil, but so we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve moved toward that dream. That’s the point at which most people give up. It’s the point at which, as we say in the language of the desert, one ‘dies of thirst just when the palm trees have appeared on the horizon.’

I’ve felt this way about my book.  Is it my dream?  Will it ever be realized?  Is the fact that I haven’t yet had it published a test, or is it an indication that I ought to be doing something else with my life.  In truth, I don’t know.  Except, there’s that quiet voice deep in my being that says I should still believe in it.  There’s nothing to do but keep trying…

So what do you do when you feel unfulfilled in some aspect of your life?

1) Ask questions.  Gay Hendricks, a former professor at Stanford and the author of two books I really liked, 5 Wishes and The Great Leap, suggests thinking about the end of our lives and asking ourselves what we would wish we could say about how we lived and what we’d done.  It’s a helpful way to hone in one what’s really important and interesting to us.

2) Accept the present.  Spiritual leaders often say that one way to be peaceful and content is to accept life the way it is in any given moment.  In whatever one does, there are lessons to be learned… even if a situation is stressful or boring or disappointing.   The key is to accept whatever comes our way.  Learn from the past, plan for the future, but live in the moment.

3) “Don’t give up.  Don’t ever give up.”  Jim Valvano, the courageous basketball coach of North Carolina State University said these inspiring words before he succumbed to cancer.  He also said, “be a dreamer.”  To fulfil our own potential, we have to dream and dream big.  Once we’ve defined what we want, we can’t give up.  That’s the only way one can ever truly fail.

Long Days Journey Into Night

There are always going to be good days and bad.  There are always going to be times that try our mettle.  But if we know where we want to go and what we want to accomplish (whether it’s in a career, a hobby or with our family), then it’s easier to navigate those challenging moments.

I definitely do not have the answers yet.  I’m searching for them.  If anyone out there thoughts on “coming alive,” please leave comments or send me a message!