(Be)come As You Are

 What should you do when opportunities ask you to step aside from your goals?

What happens when you just go with the flow.

I was one of those rare teens who knew exactly what they wanted to become– a journalist- a music journalist, specifically- and when I got to college, I didn’t want to waste a minute forging that path. No sooner did I set foot in Boston did I immediately sniff out opportunities to immerse myself in that world. I joined the school newspaper as a music critic and interned for the first women’s snowboarding magazine (without having even been on an actual snowboard). I wormed my way into press passes writing punk and ska gig reviews for a popular local rag called The Noise, and pulled brain-bending all-nighters with my best friend and roomie producing our weirdo brainchild ‘zine, called “Beeatches.”

 As you can see, I keep getting older, but my journalistic sensibilities have stayed the same age.

As you can see, I keep getting older, but my journalistic sensibilities have stayed the same age.

I also flunked out of school. Repeatedly. 

In what was ultimately my last “real” semester, I was taking a course in publication design, learning the exciting new desktop publishing tools of the day, Quark Xpress, Photoshop, and Illustrator. For my final project, I produced an end-to-end magazine, as editor, writer, creative director, and photographer. 

It was during this time that I was also working as a barista in a très hip coffee shop where the nearby ad agencies were supplying my steady stream of young, cool customers whose own work was beginning to skew towards the digital. I’d serve these guys their “redeyes,” smoke cigarettes with them and listen to them talk about the cool stuff they were doing. They were edgy and interesting. And good looking.

It was through one of these regulars, a young woman, that I landed my first role in this compelling new world, as an intern to the design department of an interactive agency. I’ll never forget the moment when, on one of my first days she asked me to “open my browser window,” and I panicked for a minute because I honestly was not sure what she meant. (She meant “enter the world wide web from that Netscape Navigator icon on your desktop, dummy.” It was the 90’s.)

Being exposed to this cool culture encouraged me to return to higher education to begin developing some skills, so I decided to sign up for some night courses in graphic design and typography at the local art college. While I found the study of traditional design elements inspiring, I struggled to be engaged by the subtleties of leading and kerning and x-height. I knew I had a decent eye, but executing at that level of detail was just not my cup of tea. Hence, more dropping out.

Back at work, I began to seek out opportunities to return to my natural wordy element, allying myself more and more with the copywriters and editors, even when the assignments were focused on wading through descriptions of a drug’s side effects. 

It fell to this group of writers to also develop the organizing principles of all a site’s content and how a “user” would find their way around it. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point the Content team sub-divided to include “Information Architects,” whose domain would be the boxes and arrows of a site’s map, and ultimately of each page’s basic content scheme, to which the graphic design would be applied. And just like that, poof, I was one of them, and I'd managed to pivot from my writing career before it had even started. 

Veering off course can be surprisingly less dramatic than the idea suggests.

It’s more subtle, a slight curve here, a circumstantial diversion there. You may not even feel it happening, and if you do, maybe you don’t even mind. You’re just going with the flow. 

But let’s be clear. Don’t confuse this fluidity with indecision or wishy-washiness. Quite the opposite, in fact; I’d call it a kind of opportunism. It is indeed a choice to follow the current that may carry you in a different direction than you’d set out. You could just as well channel your energy towards willfully resisting, saying, “No! This is the way I’d mapped out, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss seeing the sights and hitting the milestones that I’ve been planning!” That’s totally legit. When you have your heart set on seeing the Grand Canyon, even a divergence that leads to the Eiffel Tower may not satisfy your goals.

Really it’s a matter of expectations. To use the terms of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, do you have a fixed or a growth mindset? Meaning, are you focused on specific measures of success, or are you thinking laterally about what you are learning moreso than what you are achieving?

While we most often think about ambition in the specific terms of goal orientation, like, “She wants to be a music journalist writing for Spin,” I’ve come to accept it- at least for myself- as a more essential and powerful force that guides me toward some higher order aspirations rather than any pre-defined outcomes. 

While my own willingness to go after things should not be conflated with my actually knowing exactly what I’m going after, I am nothing if not determined.

Probably this has caused my parents undue amounts of frustration and my friends a fair amount of eye-rolling as everyone wonders, “Good grief, what is she doing this time?” I pivot more than a ballerina, with significantly less grace.

Over twenty years of pivots and boomerangs, my habit may have faltered, but more or less I’ve never really stopped writing. For a good long while, I stuck to my regime of journaling, capturing my breathless years in Paris, a volatile young marriage, and the highs and lows of bopping around Boston trying to figure things out in my late 20’s. I mostly wrote about dudes. And of course there’s always been the on again/off again food blogging. Writing has always been a significant part of my work, albeit in slide format most of the time. Here I am again, filling that gap in my life once more, with renewed purpose.

Could I look back in anger, lamenting the fact that I never did become a writer? I suppose I could, but who says I’m not and that I didn't? My outcomes are slightly different than what I’d expected, and there’s certainly still plenty of time to add some new ones to the list. And hey, Spin hasn’t folded yet, so who knows!

At this point, I’m much more focused on becoming rather than being. A body at rest stays at rest but a body in motion stays in motion. I’m simply choosing to direct my energy to where it’s feeling the most supported and gaining the greatest momentum. I’m just going with the flow.

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