Do the thing that chills you down to the bone
Do the thing that chills you down to the bone. Even when the people you love threaten to swallow it whole with their doubt. Even when the easier option is to sleep through your waking life because it’s comfortable, safe. Even when, especially when, people tell you that you’ve reached your best-buy date.
When I was young, I was wild with ambition. I had time, oceans of it, and all I could think about was the possibilities that lie ahead. In 1997, that was one of the greatest luxuries I’d ever know, but who could know it then? Who could possibly understand the gift that math brings? All the years ahead loomed larger than the ones that had passed and there I stood, occupying the space between the two.
Land surveyors lay down points on a terrain and plot the distances between them. The measurements become a map and your life becomes a series of coordinates navigating the terrain. Funny how time doesn’t factor into the equation.
I’ve been thinking about time a lot, as well as ambition.
When I was young, I was hungry with want. I had to prove something to the world, myself, perhaps my mother, and I needed to collect totems or signifiers of success. I graduated college with honors and secured a job in a prestigious investment bank. I wore the wool suit with hose. I was the owner of a transit pass. After three years, I left that job even when people told me I was crazy to give up all that security, the employee stock purchase plan, and the money.
When I told my employer that I was going to Columbia graduate school for an MFA they didn’t blink when they said, a master’s in finance? To which I replied, master’s in fine arts, and their laughter was painful and uncomfortable and they all chorused that no one makes money in the arts.
I wish my voice had been louder back then. Confident, assured. I would’ve said that money isn’t my only want. I would’ve said fuck comfortable, fuck safe. Instead, I collected my things from my cubicle, smiled through the goodbye party filled with cupcakes and cards, and stood alone on a hot sidewalk in New York, wearing the wool suit I would soon donate.
Coordinates on a map and like that. I was 25.
Over the next twelve years I completed my MFA, published my first book, launched and folded a successful literary magazine, partnered with community leaders in Bed-Stuy to create events for underprivileged mothers, worked as a marketer in a luxury start-up, a cable media giant and a book publisher. I became a partner in a social media agency, battled and overcame a drug and alcohol problem, and found a great love and lost it along the way.
I wanted that title. I wanted that paycheck. I wanted those expensive glitter shoes. I wanted respect and acclaimed. I was in constant want until my wants swallowed me whole.
I was exhausted. I was sick, bitter, and angry. My body had become a house in disrepair. My friendships were precarious. My love life, non-existent. I wasn’t kind to others and myself. I was 37 and what did I have to show for my years of famish and want? Ambition is beautiful and bold until you are blinded by it, until it’s the only path on a map you’re determined to take.
This is the time when you veer off the road and cut the engine. This is the moment you pull out the paper map because you need to get out from this place. And maybe you mourn yourself a little when you see that the map has faded and discolored with age. It’s like coming home to find all the lights in your house turned on and then over time watching the bulbs dim, flicker, and burn out.
You don’t mourn the map; really, you’re heartbroken because the map reminds you that the years ahead are fewer than the ones you’ve left behind.
I can’t ignore the math. I don’t have a lot of time.
There came a point when I shifted from desiring success to significance. The shift was imperceptible, but it happened when I became aware of time and the fact that I had been squandering it. That realization was potent and frightening because death takes it all, strips us of ourselves and we return to that from which we’ve come. We can’t cart along our trophies and bank accounts and handbags to the afterlife. Those things will be reduced to dust, devoid of significance and meaning.
I started to think about time and its value. Am I squandering it? Investing in it? Living it? Breathing through it. I started to ask myself, to what end?
I’m frightened of death and the irony that I wanted to take my own life two years ago doesn’t escape me. I don’t have a faith that could hold my hand and guide me through and out of the dark. I believe nothing exists after death and this life is the one true thing I know.
Maybe we’ll all be forgotten. Maybe we’ll leave indelible marks. I don’t know.
What I do know is that the definition of success is elusive. Just when you think you have it, it changes form. And the things I wanted five, ten years ago aren’t that which I desire now. There’s want, but it’s a different kind of want. There’s the want of designing a life that’s conscious, graceful, purposeful, impactful, curiosity-driven, and remarkable.
I sat down with a peer this weekend. She’s a successful entrepreneur on the cusp of her forties and she’s asking the big questions. She wants to redesign her life to make room for the things that matter: love, knowledge, friendships, spirituality, and community. Like me a few years ago, she’s ready to dismantle a life subsumed by her work. Her wants are about clarity, time, and space.
She trusts me as a marketer, a friend, and as someone at her level who could lend her perspective. She has the tools, it’s just a matter of me being her guide and telling her that she alone can grant herself permission to shift her business to a purpose-driven one — one that aligns with her values and life.
I’m not a magician or a fakir, but I helped give her clarity. I cut through the noise and showed her the path back to herself because we are all students, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can be guides.
At first, I was scared to do this. My friend is smart, discerning, and extremely successful. I had to remind myself of my value and the gifts I have that could help others. I had to remind myself of my own journey and how I came out from the other side. There’s magic in that, I think, the journey back to yourself, armed with all the wisdom you’ve accumulated.
This year, I’m doing all the things that frighten me. I’m on the verge. Leaping out of my comfort zone. Tearing apart maps and drawing new ones. Charting territory.
Who knows when I’ll go and what I don’t want is regret. I want to wake every day and say imagine if. I want to fail again and again because it means I’m inching closer to being my truest, bravest self. There is no joy in complacency and cold comforts, but there is joy in exploring all of yourself and redefining your story.
Today, my story is that I helped a friend redefine her business so she can make room for all the beautiful things in her life. Space, time, purpose, clarity, impact — this is what I want. This is what she wants. This is what most of us will soon want with time.
And those pure wants are better than any Prada handbag.