So many people are unhappy with where they are and yet they don’t do anything to change it. We can have tremendous inertia. We stay in jobs that aren’t satisfying, relationships that don’t work, live in cities that don’t feel comfortable, and don’t do the things we dream of doing.
So, how do you break up with your life and start a new one?
You can get PUSHED
You can get PULLED
You can JUMP!
Getting pushed means that something happens to you that is out of your control. It might be getting fired from your job, getting dumped by your partner, or being diagnosed with an illness. Each of these creates a discontinuity that gives us a huge push. We would rarely ask for any of these things to happen, but when they do they give us permission to radically change course. They allow us to question everything, to do things we wouldn’t have considered reasonable before, and to make real changes.
I see this all the time… someone who is hoping to get fired from a job. They might say they don’t want to lose their job but set themselves up to get fired. Or, someone who is hoping their partner will leave them and act accordingly, because they aren’t strong enough to do it themselves. There are even those who make themselves sick, so that they can get permission from others to do something different.
Getting pulled is much easier. This happens when you get offered a more attractive job, seduced by another partner, or invited to participate in something exciting, like a free trip around the world. Nobody would blame you for taking such an attractive alternative. This is an easy route… You bid farewell to your old life as you get pulled into a new one.
It would be great if you could will these opportunities to materialize. But, they are rare. We can’t plan on a “prince or princess” showing up to rescue us from the life we don’t like. In fact, attractive opportunities usually go to those who are already living a great life. If you are floundering, it is much less likely that you will be offered an exciting new job, new relationship, or new adventure.
In most cases you need to work really hard to get pulled into something new and exciting. This involves preparing for and applying to lots of job, dating lots of people, and reaching out broadly until someone chooses to pull you into a new opportunity. You have to prepare for and ask to get pulled — it rarely happens on its own.
The bravest thing we can do is JUMP! This requires a lot of activation energy. It is hard to leave something that is good enough, especially when the alternative is undefined. We worry that something better won’t come along. Perhaps this is the best we can do.
There are lots of times when people want to jump, they dream of jumping, and know there is something better on the other side. But, they can’t muster the energy to do it. Here is a short story from my life that illustrates how hard it is to jump, and how rewarding it can be:
When I was in my early twenties, it was surprisingly difficult for me to live the life I wanted since I had so much “guidance” from my parents about what I should be doing. For example, I started graduate school in neuroscience at an east coast university right after college. My parents were thrilled! They were so proud of me that it was hard for me to know if I really wanted to go to graduate school or if I was doing it for them.
After only one semester, I decided that I really needed to take a break from school. It was an incredibly difficult decision, but I knew in my gut that I needed time to understand what was the right path for me. The hardest part was telling my parents. My decision was extremely hard for them. They were deeply upset with me. But, I knew I needed to JUMP.
I drove across the country to Santa Cruz, California, with my cat, with no idea of what I was going to do next.
In retrospect, taking a break from school turned out to be a pivotal decision. It was exciting and scary. It was the first time I didn’t have a specific assignment, a focused goal, or a clear plan. I took odd jobs so I could support myself and spent a lot of time walking and thinking at the beach. After a while, I started going to the University of California at Santa Cruz’s biology library to keep up on neuroscience literature. At first it was monthly, then weekly, then daily.
After about six months in Santa Cruz, I was ready to get back into the lab. With that objective, I tracked down a list of the neuroscience faculty at Stanford University, which was not far away, and wrote each one a letter. I told them about my background and asked if they had a research job for me. Over the next few weeks, I got letters back from all of them, but no one had an open position. However, one faculty member passed my letter on, and I received a call from a professor in the anesthesia department. He asked if I would like to work in the operating room evaluating new medical technology— the oximeters that are now ubiquitous — on high-risk patients. I jumped at the chance. I got PULLED into this opportunity after a lot of effort.
Within days I was at Stanford, getting up at the crack of dawn, wearing surgical scrubs, and monitoring patients. This experience was fascinating in a million unexpected ways. Once the project was over, I managed to negotiate a job as a research assistant in a neuroscience lab and eventually applied to transfer to graduate school at Stanford. The admissions committee made me jump through flaming hoops, but I was now extremely motivated and did everything they required. Eventually I was accepted. Honestly, that was the proudest moment of my life — I was starting graduate school for myself, not for others. I had to break up with my old life in order to create a new one.
Jumping is incredibly hard, and requires a large activation energy. It often involves disappointing others, leaving a relatively comfortable position, and taking on a risk. However, as Andre Gide says so beautifully, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
The story at the end of this article is an edited excerpt from What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20