Sharon washed up at the table next to me during a post-conference dinner here in Bergen and opened up over beer and reindeer steaks. She’s a bright young woman about to finish a Masters in finance and economics who doesn’t know how to approach the post-graduation void.
Sharon started reeling off different directions and opportunities, but I could see she wasn’t energized by any of them.
That’s when I shared my practical way to chop overgrown forests of life decisions into mental lumber out of which you can build thoughts and plans. Then, my conversation with Sharon recurred and recombined into conversations with Diane and Adam and Abby,* hence this piece.
At every life transition you’ll stand in front of three unlocked doors, but just like with real doors you can only walk through one of these metaphors at a time.
The doors are What, Where or Who.
What: you know the job you want or the industry in which you want to find that first gig to lead onwards and, with luck and late nights, upward. If What is ascendant is your astrology then you don’t care where you live or who is living there with you. If you want to be a baseball journalist, you go where you find an opportunity even if that takes you to a Podunk town you can’t even find on Google Maps without zooming, where nobody has ever heard the word “barista,” but where somebody will pay you to cover the minor league feeder team (among a bunch of other less tasty assignments).
Where: you don’t care that much about how you’ll make a living, although selling sex toys door to door is out because you get tired of explaining what goes where. Sure, you want to have friends around, but the players change while the stage remains the same. It’s Seattle that has captured your heart: the hills, the water front, the coffee culture. You like seeing dead trout hurled around Pike Place Market. You’re a Where person. Every town’s got some of these folks; they’re the “Mayors” of different sub-communities.
Who: it’s not that you don’t have standards about what you do to keep ramen on the table, and there are places that make your underarms itch if you even think about living there. But you’ve made the big choice about Who you’re going to live with and be buried next to after you die, and that person has a What or a Where pulling him or her, so you’re going along for the ride. (This time. It’ll be your turn to be What or Where later because that’s fair.)
The trick when you’re looking at three different doors is to be honest with yourself. Right now, are you a What, a Where or a Who?
The problem is that being honest with yourself sucks. It’s really really hard.
It’s much easier to listen to all the other voices: your friends, your family, your teachers, your vague sense of what people like you do with their lives at certain stages.
A good test to see if you’re lying to yourself is to listen for the word “should” in your internal monolog. “Should” coaxes you to turn the wrong door handle. Sometimes. Yeah, you should pay your bills, and if you’ve got kids they come first. I’m not talking about the brush-your-teeth-twice-each-day should. I’m talking about continuing to practice law even though you hate it just because you got a law degree.
Don’t be a ventriloquist’s dummy. Which door is important?
I used to think I was a What. In fact, I was so convinced I was a What that I spent a decade getting a doctorate in Shakespeare studies because the plan was to teach undergraduates about Shakespeare no matter where that happened or how little I’d be paid to do so.
Then I thought I was a Where, moving back to Los Angeles after grad school to work in Hollywood then in the Internet. (Look, Mom, I have practical business skillz that feed the kids— who woulda thunk it?)
But Where wasn’t true either.
Turns out, for the last few years I’ve been a Who. My wife Kathi wanted to move to Oregon, and then I found myself surrounded by pierced hipsters sipping micro-roast coffee.
Then, Kathi got a Fulbright to study in Bergen, Norway (#wet, #dark, #expensive, but #fjords and #happywife), and here I am for the school year.
Anybody want some reindeer sausage?
I haven’t always been a Who: we wound up in Los Angeles after grad school because at that time I was a Where and Kathi was the Who. We’ll switch roles again and again.
That’s another thing I’ve found myself sharing with people like Sharon and Diane and Adam and Abby: after you pick a door and walk for a while, you’re going to find yourself standing in front of another three doors.
If you want to experience paralysis, then ask yourself what you want to do with the rest of your life. That’s like asking somebody if they prefer to die in a ballooning mishap or from brain cancer: it’s a long way down either way.
I prefer the question, “what do you want to do NEXT?”
Pick a door. Start walking.
* Sharon, Diane, Adam and Abby are all pseudonyms.