“I’m so proud of you for moving to Utah and following your dreams,” was the text message I received from a friend after I posted my most recent life update on Facebook. The post announced I would be moving to St. George to work as a field instructor for a wilderness therapy program. The text was accompanied by a picture of red rocks that popped against the backdrop of a bright blue desert sky.
“But this isn’t my dream,” I thought to myself.
Where I came from and where I’m going
A little over a year ago I decided to step down from my role at New Leaf Initiative. Growing the organization was a formative experience that fostered my own personal and professional growth in many ways. However, I eventually hit a wall. I didn’t know how to teach myself more and recognized my desire to develop my skill sets more deeply. Hungry for change and knowing in my heart I was ready, I decided to leave with no long term next step. At the time, I left with many clear questions in my head, but no clear answers.
What skills do I want to develop?
Will I like having a boss instead of being my own boss?
Will having a more structured role affect my stress and anxiety levels?
How can I give myself the space I need?
What interest areas do I want to pursue?
When asked about my decision to transition, a typical conversation would sound like this…
“So Serena, what do you want to do next?”
“Well, I don’t know actually. There are several fields I am interested in.”
“Oh yea, what are those?”
“Community and economic development, coworking, sustainable agriculture, organizational management, entrepreneurship, and personal growth programs,” I would rattle off.
With a skeptical chuckle, “Those are a lot of interests you have there.”
“Yea I know. I can see myself working within any of them so I’m open to whatever opportunities come up for me.”
During the time of my transition last year, I was thinking deeply about career exploration, the concept of following passion, and how to navigate big decisions (these thoughts culminated in a blog post entitled, “Why following your passion is bad career advice”). At the time, I was asking myself, “What type of work am I capable or qualified to do?“ So I took my laundry list of possibilities and applied for opportunities all across the map of interests I had drawn up for myself. I got rejected from every job I applied to and ended up being unemployed for over two months (I’ll save my reflections on the psychological effects of unemployment for a rainy day). Even my backup plans started folding. Broke and completely aware of the fact that I needed work, I started scraping together odd jobs and then eventually accepted a temporary role with a sustainable agriculture non-profit. I wasn’t thrilled about the job itself but it meant a steady income, the stability of a supportive community, and the opportunity to take the space and time I needed to reflect on what I wanted next.
At the start of 2016, a friend facilitated a visioning activity with me. She asked me to talk about all of the things I was interested in doing and took notes while I talked. Then we went into several rounds of “would you rather” as I was asked to compare all of my interests and pick which ones were important to me. “Would you rather work with entrepreneurs or focus on building personal development programs?”
Suddenly, my question transitioned from “What can I do?” to “What do I want to do?” For the first time, I was forced to prioritize my interests. This was challenging, but ultimately encouraged me to think differently about the way I was approaching decisions in my life.
This line of thinking helped me to better define my priorities. I realized I am extremely interested in organizational development and fostering workplace cultures where employees feel validated and can bring their whole selves to work. I realized how important access to wilderness is to me. I realized I feel best and can think clearly when I am using my body and moving around. I realized I want to continue to develop my facilitation skills. I realized the work I have most enjoyed doing involves working with others on their personal growth and exploring skills like deep listening, expressing emotions, and communicating feedback. I also realized I would like to be my own boss again one day.
So now I have a big, vague, amorphous vision that one day I will be able to create something that engages all of these preferences. So yes, I now have more direction and understand more clearly what I want. But I still don’t have dreams I am attaching my future self to. When I reflect on how much my mind has shifted over the past year, thinking about establishing concrete goals still feels intimidating to me. “I have decided I am never making a definitive decision again” has become my mantra (yes, the irony is intentional).
Yet I do still believe, like I wrote last year, that instead of following my passion, I can cultivate it. This reasoning is why I made the decision to move to Utah and work for Evoke. I want to understand what it is like to work for a company that embodies what I believe is strong workplace culture by emphasizing wholeness and expecting employees to be real, open, and vulnerable. I am outside all the time, hiking, and using my body in the field. I am directly communicating with participants and my coworkers through feedback and check-ins. I am continuing to develop my facilitation skills. I am also being challenged emotionally, mentally, interpersonally, and physically, which I know will help me learn more about myself. I want to learn how a program like Evoke functions so I can better understand what I may want to create in the future.
There are aspects of this job I don’t enjoy. Living in St. George is weird. It’s extremely hot, there aren’t many of the cultural opportunities I enjoy, and I constantly feel surrounded by strip malls and consumerism. My schedule of eight days on and six days off makes it challenging to develop a routine and regularly keep in touch with my friends and family. The work is quite demanding and requires a lot of mental, emotional, and physical exertion. Time to myself in the field is limited. Nostalgia hits hard when I think about the rolling hills, farmer’s markets, and familiar forests of Pennsylvania. I miss what it feels like to be seen and understood by a community and feel connected to the people around me. Yet this opportunity provides the platform to deliberately cultivate several facets of the skill sets I am passionate about developing and that is why I am here.
“I’m so proud of you for moving to Utah and following your dreams.”
After I shared my update, I received many comments of a similar nature from friends and family. As much as I appreciated the support, the assumption that moving here has always been my dream is inaccurate. I couldn’t help but feel like many were making up a story in their own minds as to why I made the decisions I did. My story started to feel sensationalized and less of my own. Moving out west nor working for a wilderness therapy program nor living a life that will facilitate travel and adventure are my dreams. Yes, these are all things I like and want to do, but I haven’t always dreamt of doing them. I haven’t suspended my happiness by convincing myself I will only be happy once I fulfill my dreams and move out west. I still don’t believe long term dreams and goals are right for me, so I don’t have any. This transition is the next step in a sequence of many steps that I am sure are to come.
I have a complicated relationship with social media. I believe it is an extremely valuable tool, but am often frustrated by the way I and others utilize the tool. During this time in my life, so many of my peers are moving all over the place, traveling to new places, starting new jobs, getting married, and having kids. These big life transitions lend themselves quite well to a Facebook post, which is often a very practical way to update friends and family.
Yet they also lend themselves well to assumptions, comparisons, and interpretations that are often inaccurate, unhealthy, and can become slightly obsessive. Ironically, this obsession reminds me of materialism. Rather than an obsession with possessions, we are becoming a generation obsessed with experiences. Instead of filling our homes with cool cars and expensive TV’s, we’re filling our Facebook albums with pictures of all of the cool places we have gone and things we have done there. I am by no means saying this is a bad thing. I would much rather witness an emphasis on experiences over material objects. My concern is that the same mental traps that develop with materialism are developing with experiences. With the advent of social media, we can now see so openly into each other’s lives and are constantly comparing our lives to others. Instead of looking forward to driving our cool new cars around town, we look forward to posting pictures about our cool new journeys.
With such an exposed view into the personal lives of my friends and acquaintances, comparing and questioning my own life and daily decisions has been difficult to avoid.
How do I know this job is right for me?
Is there something better out there?
Am I happy enough?
Does my life have enough excitement and adventure?
Should I be doing something social right now?
I would be lying if I said these questions did not pop into my head every once and awhile. I create stories in my head based on the images on my screen. Through comparing my own life to my Facebook feed, I allow myself to question my own actions and decisions, highlighting my insecurities. Whenever I find myself trapped in this mindset, I have to check in with myself and recall what I know to be true for me. Making decisions based on my intuition can be challenging with all of the noise I surround myself with. Yet when I act for me rather than for an image I want to portray, I find I am less anxious and ultimately more content and fulfilled.
I felt compelled to write this because I recognized I was harboring some frustration and resentment whenever I would talk about my decision to move to Utah. I felt unheard and misunderstood. I also eventually recognized I couldn’t blame all of the people who reached assumptions about my life based on one post. How could I be mad when I wasn’t filling in all of the blanks and getting the information I wanted to express out there by sharing my story?
I still intend to utilize Facebook as the extremely useful tool that it is and try my best not to get sucked into the ways it can influence my emotions and perceptions. But when I feel any disconnects, I want to challenge myself to address them. I find it ironic that as social technologies continue to develop, we are able to share more, yet the quality of our content is diminishing. Quantity is being emphasized over quality. It makes sense; likes and views are validating and provide external metrics for us to evaluate our lives. But what are our internal metrics? How do we evaluate and validate ourselves?
Reclaiming our stories
While that internal validation will look different for each of us, there is something we all have in common. We all have a story to tell. There is so much more to all of us than 140 characters.
“I would ask you to remember only this one thing,” said Badger. “The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.” – Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel
Stories are powerful. They can inspire, awaken, and transform us. I can’t help but wonder if we are truncating our lives by reducing the depth of our stories to fit the form of a tweet, Snapchat, or Facebook post. We have become accustomed to communicating through these outlets. They feel comfortable, safe, and efficient. They are also conditioning our attention spans to seek easy and digestible bits of information. Is the way we have come to consume information dulling our ability to express ourselves and fully push into and own our emotions? Are we dissociating ourselves from our own stories?
I’m all for utilizing advancements in technology as long as they do not numb or eliminate our innate storytelling abilities. Storytelling is a language through which we can all communicate, our purest form of connection. Stories take time. They take time to develop, to tell, and to hear. So let’s reclaim our stories if they have become lost or forgotten. Let’s learn from each other. Let’s take the time to hear and be heard, to tell and be told, to see and be seen, because, like Margaret Atwood says,
“In the end, we’ll all become stories.”