There are two recurring dreams I have with regularity. They speak to an insidious fear, and they are very similar in what they try to tell me, though their occurrences are quite different.
In the first dream, I have a dog. Usually it's a very small, white, helpless looking lap dog. Maybe a poodle or a maltese, or a bischon. At the start of the dream, I'm super excited to have the dog. I haven't had a dog in years; my dog Max died when I was 15. After that, through my rapidly improved allergies, I realized I had been allergic to Max all along. In the dream though, I have somehow gotten over my allergies and can once again have a dog. So I am super psyched. For a little while in the dream, I'll spend time hanging with the dog, playing and snuggling and all that. But eventually I'll leave my house, with the dog at home, and I'll go off to do stuff. The activities in the dream are always different, and hard to remember. It may be grocery shopping, going to work, hanging with friends - whatever - but the idea is that they're just mundane life stuff. But then I suddenly remember that I've been gone for far too long and have forgotten to feed my dog, or leave food out anywhere. So I'll rush home and the dog will be dead, or emaciated, or will have run away because it was starving and needed to find food. And I'm crushed. That I have forgotten something so vitally important, shirked my responsibility so horribly and fundamentally feels awful.
The other dream I have constantly puts me back someplace I have mixed emotions about - school. College really, although sometimes it's high school, almost invariably it's college. Similar to the dog dream, I'll be hanging out with people, doing things socially or otherwise, and the semester will be progressing. Then, 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through the semester I'll realize I've never been to class. I don't know what my schedule is anymore, I haven't done any work, and I'm in danger of failing. But I don't know how to figure out what they are, without having to show up and admit that I have never even begun. Again, it's this feeling of having a responsibility or an expectation to meet, and failing utterly. Forgetting something really important in favor of something totally unimportant.
There's a common theme here I think. I think on a very surface level, the dreams speak to my desire to be a dependable and responsible person. But digging deeper, there's more to it. In these dreams, there's always this sense that the activities I'm doing in place of what I'm supposed to be responsible for are mundane and unimportant. I can't help but feel that the dreams are a manifestation of my inner desire to be doing something more meaningful with my life, and that desire's struggle against more unimportant aims. Even though I've never had a particularly good sense of what that is, I've always had the feeling. And it's been growing all the time since I got to North Carolina.
Moving here, I took a job that involved less challenge and less responsibility than the job I held in New York. I don't have the ability to take ownership as much anymore, I don't have opportunity to exercise my entrepreneurial spirit, and above all else is in an industry that is not one of my passions and never was.
For those who aren't familiar with my situation, I was a history and politics double major. And for a long time I assumed I was going to go into politics, or work in non-profit, or do something else that allowed me to use the idealistic beliefs I had spent years cultivating. But then, I spent that summer working for Pelosi and it was a big disappointment. While there were exciting moments, I left DC feeling like congressmen don't really do anything, that they don't know anything (requiring their LAs and the CRS to educate them), and that they're most concerned with connections and re-elections. More concerned with politicking than politics, than issues. I was feeling totally crushed and thinking, what do I do with myself? I went back to school and started to think that if I wasn't going to go into politics, perhaps I'd become a lawyer. If I can't change things in the political world perhaps I'll be a defender of people and ideas in the legal sphere. I took an LSAT prep class. I researched law school. But summer was fast approaching. The last summer, I had had to pay to live in DC and not gotten paid, so my primary concern for the following summer was to find a paying internship. And through some connections I managed to get a job with my present wealth-management firm (which I cannot name here, per my agreement to be allowed to blog, so henceforth I'll just refer to them as "my PF"). I worked at my PF all summer and found it a pleasant enough place to work. The people were nice, the perks were great (as was the pay) and there were exciting jargon words being tossed around like "leadership" and "ownership". There were people who embraced me as a leader, whereas in congress I had felt mostly like a peon. You have the right great idea and you're recognized, and recognition was a big theme, which worked for me as an approval/praise seeker. So in the fall I was back at school and was all set to start applying to law schools. I had scored relatively well (93rd percentile) on the LSAT, started receiving a few application fee waivers, gotten letters of recommendation, all that jazz. It was early October and I was narrowing my list of schools to apply to, working with Hiatt (who never stopped to ask me why I wanted to go to law school, btw). While I had an idea of what I wanted to accomplish as a lawyer, I had no idea about the practicalities of actually becoming one, or of going to law school. The more I learned, there was one thing I feared - the cost. Having to take out loans started to seem prohibitively expensive. The reality of what debt might mean for my ability to be discerning in job selection after graduation was frightening. Thankfully, I had had older friends (mostly debaters) who had gone to law school, and I had seen their struggle between selling out and taking a big-firm job to pay off debt, or enduring financial difficultly to follow their dreams. Hardly any of them took the latter path. They were cautionary tales.
It's safe to say I was feeling a little doubt the crisp fall day the phone rang. It was my PF. They asked me how I had liked my summer internship, what I had disliked, what I might be planning for after graduation. I told them about law school and not being sure. I told them I was applying to other jobs. I had a pretty good, pretty honest convo with this HR guy, who was supposedly trying to 'get feedback on the internship program' because it was new. About a week after this chat, he called back and informed me that my PF was ready to offer me a full time position (and more money than I could have imagined being worth upon graduation) in a brand new, 2 year long analyst program. They were offering me a guaranteed job - an alternative to a job search, a mountain of debt, or an insecurity that law school was the right choice. I took a few weeks, debated it with pretty much everyone I knew - both family and friends.
Eventually, I took the offer. The feeling of relief was immense and immediate. The idea that I didn't have to worry, like all my other friends, about finding a job or what I was going to "do with myself." Because what I was going to "do with myself" has always been a big concern to me. I have had a lot of interests, a lot of passions, but not a lot of direction or focus throughout the years. Accepting this job was, almost in the same way that college was, a chance to postpone having to find a direction. For two years. I thought, okay, I can work, I can live at home, save some money. I don't really like finance, I don't really want to work in finance long term, but this will give me two more years to defer and decide "do I want to go to law school" or "do I want to do something else" or "if I do want to do something else, what is it?" And I could sit here all day and tell you about what the reality of those two years was like. But I'll spare you. The overarching theme was, "While I constantly questioned whether or not it was something I should be doing, I did not use the two years productively to make a decision that it was or wasn't, and then a subsequent decision about what else I should do." When those two years came up and my PF offered me a permanent job with increased responsibility, a promotion, more money, and more buzzwords about leadership, I thought "Wow! Cool! Someone believes in me and trusts me, I must be doing great in this thing I don't actually care that much about!"
You can guess where that led. This July it will be six years that I've been working for the firm. I was promoted three times in five years (in New York) and one thing led to another. I was able to continually say, "Well, I haven't spent enough time thinking about what to do next to make a decision right now." Every time those decision points came up and it seemed like there might be a reason to make an exit because I was bored, or unsatisfied or unhappy - there was something to keep me there. It was like my PF had spy cams in my head; when I started to doubt it, I got a raise or a promotion or a role change or an org change or a new manager. Whatever, something to shake up my day to day and convince me that whatever this next thing was it would be enough to solve the problem I was having. But of course, it never did. Because the actual problem was - this is not what I want to do with my life.
And so, I think these dreams I've been having are just a metaphor for the fact that I'm a square peg trying to shove myself in a round hole. I'm never going to fit, and I know that about myself. But I'm betraying that - I'm not feeding the dog, I'm not going to classes. I'm just putting on my blindfold and marching out into the world without fulfilling the responsibility to myself which is to DO SOMETHING MORE. I cannot let it continue, I can't keep trying to shove myself in that hole. But what now...?
I was all ready last fall to apply to graduate school, to a program that I thought would make me happy. A great second career - guidance counseling. Understandably, considering the struggles I have had throughout the years, one of the things that draws me strongly to this career is the ability to help kids not make the same mistakes that I made. To help them realize that just because they don't know right away what they want to do, they don't have to do something antithetical to what they believe because society or their parents expect it of them. That there are ways they can make connections, have experiences that will help them figure it out, to get closer, that I just didn't know about or explore or consider worthwhile, that they NEED to consider. I don't want anyone to end up with this feeling. I think I'd be great at the other parts of the job too. I've been on the other end of recruiting, so I can help them look for jobs. I'm super organized and can keep track of changes in college requirements, testing, scheduling stuff. I even can do the interpersonal counseling aspects of the job. I have had a variety of experiences - a kid who was bullied, a teenager rushed into decisions too soon. I think I can talk to kids without being preachy and patronizing. Help them understand what they might face in the real world.
But if I'm truly being honest with myself, even though I love all the things that I just described about that job, it still feels like making a choice to make a choice. To me. I still don't feel a sense of larger purpose, of what I'm waiting for. Some sign that's going to clue me in to what I'm meant to do. Maybe that's a fallacy. I still struggle with that. Am I doing it to make a choice or for a higher purpose? I think the reason I have doubts, or struggle, is because there are so many things I want to do that picking any one feels something like betraying the others.
Let me give you an example. On OkCupid, a dating website I'm on, one of the questions it asks you to fill in is, "I spend a lot of time thinking about..." and my answer is "whether or not I could pull off the whole earth lifestyle." I've read tons of books and articles, and have strong opinions on the subject of food politics in our country. The death of genetic biodiversity, our relationship with food, the allocation of our farm subsidies. And it's not just about food, that's one piece of the puzzle. But it's also about living more simply - growing more of my own food, having fewer possessions, be less attached to my electronic devices. Things that are a certain way as a product of the era in which I was born. I'm not just inspired to make these changes in my own life (which I feel I've done some of but could do much more), but also to do something politically that's related to those goals. One of the things that I've thought about doing in the past is getting an MPP or something similar. Tufts offers this awesome degree which is an MS in agriculture, nutrition and environment. Which is sort of like doing the science mixed with the legislative piece of it. You're not going to get an MPP and be a statistician because it's designed to get you working with the grassroots organizations themselves, rather than in a think tank somewhere regurgitating numbers. There's some of that, but it's not the primary focus. Which is appealing to me. However, one of the things the program looks for is demonstrated interest in the subject matter. And despite the fact that this is an issue I'm really passionate about, the only real experience I've had with it is my own struggles with nutrition and weight throughout the years. I've never worked on a farm or on environmental reconstruction or anything. So sometimes I get this fantasy that I'm just going to ditch the job, go work on a farm. It would be grueling and crazy and unlike anything I've ever done before, but damn I think it could be positive for me. And a great way to get a foundation if I did decide I wanted to go after that degree or a degree similar to that in the future.
So then, when I think about that, I think, "Well that's another career I could be really happy in." If I could be equally happy doing that as being a guidance counselor, what do I do? Do I just pick one and decide? I also think I could be ecstatically happy owning my own photography business if I could make it work. So I just feel like, with so many passions, how do I focus? How do I narrow? It's paralyzing. It's one of the things that has kept me from jumping off the train. Certainly by knowing that these things are options I'd be happy with, I'm a lot closer than I was when I first starting working at my PF. Part of that is due to my ongoing and dedicated effort to identify and question and understand what's important to me and what I enjoy. But I'm not any closer in the sense that I have not actually made a decision, made a change.
I'm wrestling, I'm trying, and my dreams are not letting me forget.