Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Search for Relevance at Mid-Life: Crisis management and the mistake I made when I learned to shut up. Part I (In the category of Be Where You Are.)

 I made a friend on Twitter. (At least I consider him my friend. I’m not sure how he thinks of me, and that’s fine.) I don’t recall how Bill (not his name) came into my Twitter timeline, and I have no idea what he Tweeted to make me follow him. With 140 characters, he amused me greatly, and being easily pleased, that may have been all it took. Bill is only 24 years old, but witty, sarcastic, self-deprecating, clearly intelligent, unsure of what he’s doing, and unafraid to admit it. He reminded me a lot of me at that age. He was Tweeting about his job, his first after college, a mainly administrative position for a small business that sells drone stuff to the military. In many ways, it was a trip back in time for me; I could relate to the jitters of planning a trade show in Las Vegas for the first time, the annoyance of being the only one (seemingly) willing to make a fresh pot of coffee, boring meetings, tedious interns, asshole bosses.
I discovered that Bill also blogs beyond 140 characters. Curious as to what a 24-year-old could possibly have to blog about, I read the latest post available (which wasn’t all that recent at that time). I was immediately impressed not only with Bill’s writing but with his honesty. And his fearlessness; there it was, for anyone, and I mean ANYONE to read, his struggles with self-identity, with depression, with feeling like he didn’t fit in. He laments with some regularity that his mouth has cost him friends, and he wonders whether or not it would benefit him to learn to hold his tongue. I remember thinking, hell, this kid has no idea how much more evolved he is than most kids his age. Someone should tell him he’s all right.
I also remember being at the stage where Bill is in life. The early 20’s were not my favorite years. I still believed what I had to say was relevant, even in demand, and I lost a fair few friends by telling them exactly what I thought. While I instinctively knew I should shut up, I had not yet figured out how. Fresh out of grad school, deeply in student loan debt, I accepted a minimum wage technical writing internship at a fiber optic engineering company. It actually paid less than the bartending job I had worked as a grad student and had given up to join “the real world,” and I was losing sleep over whether or not the student loan collectors would cost me the day job by calling at work every day to harass me about my overdue payments. I had abandoned my pursuit of a Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of New Mexico (it would have meant many, many more student loans, and the debt I had already amassed terrified me). I wasn’t sure I was on the right path to my chosen career (Pulitzer Prize Winning Novelist by age 40), but it was a writing job, even if it didn’t pay the bills. It was a start. Surely, other, more fulfilling opportunities would arise? I stayed the course.
Bill has chosen a different path. Disgusted with corporate America, the war machine, and the idea of getting stuck in a job he hates, Bill quit the administrative position, took an internship with a Senator and has moved to Washington D.C. where, best I can tell, he still struggles with running his mouth, and has even more contempt for the war machine than ever before. He’s honing his personal mission statement. He wants to make a difference in the world. His blog continues to amaze me, as much for how current he keeps it these days as well as the content. I envy his insight, his determination to leave this place better than he found it. I envy his courage; it takes cojones to quit a sure thing for a dream, and I envy him for having the time to make his dreams come true. Bill told me he likes to take the road less traveled. Bullshit, I told him, go where there is no road and leave a trail for others to follow.
Today, nearly two decades later, I still do very much the same type of work I did for that internship for a different, but still privately owned small engineering business. Fortunately, it pays well enough to cover the bills these days. The student loans have long since been repaid, replaced with a mortgage, a home equity loan, a few credit cards. I’m very happily married, and I love my home, friends and family. But part of me feels like I missed something, a point I was supposed to get or a trail I was supposed to blaze. I have this nagging sense that I was supposed to do something relevant, and not just relevant to me, but to the world at large. I am not what I wanted to be when I grew up, but like it or not, I am grown up. I am at mid-life (or have already passed it). If I am blessed enough to live another 46 years, I’ll be a respectable 92 when I die. Hopefully by then I will have learned to live with these two truths: I never did write the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by age 40, and learning to shut your mouth is no guarantee you won’t lose friends. Besides, it is ever so much more satisfying to say whatever you think.
Stay tuned for Part II: Saved by the Blog: Wishing I could unlearn shutting up; my quest for relevance and finding the line between self-examination and whining.

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