It was during the spring of my sophomore year of college when I started calling my Dad in tears. From the narrow single bed that touched toes with my roommate in a postage size dorm room, I looked westward over the U of Washington campus from the eleventh floor. I saw cherry trees blossoming in light pink, patches of tulips and daffodils lining sidewalks, cars rolling past, the gothic brick art building, and heard songs by The Police or Bob Marley traveling down the hallways.
And I cried. Oh man how I whined and cried into the receiver of the phone, lamenting the fact that “I didn’t know what to do with my life.” So far, I hadn’t picked a major, I didn’t have a professional plan that would put me in a suit at the head of a boardroom and provide oodles of security and respect across the land. So far my college career included two D’s in calculus, dropping out of computer science, quitting a sorority, hounding advisors for the right profession, and then, eventually, calling my dad in tears.
“I can’t figure out what to do with my life,” I’d whine and cry and then, from my window perch see the Meter Maid drive into the parking lot where I was illegally parked.
My dad always talked me down. “Don’t worry about it Tatyanechka, just get your degree.” This was the early-mid ’80s when it was possible to graduate with a liberal arts degree and feel employable. My Dad, who at the time was running a Boeing office on the east coast, told me that his USC undergraduate engineering degree was managing a bunch of people with Ivy League graduate degrees. “It doesn’t matter, just study, graduate and see what happens. Don’t worry.”
In the end, I did what came most naturally: I got an English degree with a concentration on writing, and off I went into the world to — SURPRISE — work and make my living as a writer. I DID NOT EXPECT THIS. I actually laughed out loud in class one day, when a writing professor said, “When you start writing and submitting your own stories…”
I can tell you that every time I got stuck and stopped to look around, take stock and try to figure things out (rather than hatch a plan and implement or just keep moving) I went nowhere. Things were different, however, when I was filled with inspiration; when I was motivated to try or do something and I didn’t care how; when I was riding a wave of calm and faith and took the baton that life handed me and travelled somewhere unexpected, I was ALWAYS TAKEN CARE OF. In other words, I found myself in a new cool world — a job, a city, a relationship — that was better than anything I could have scripted if I had “figured it out” for myself. When I am figuring, I am so focused inward, nothing can happen. When I am figuring, I am out of my creative self and not seeing what’s possible — or open to what is possible beyond my limited realm of vision.
Life loves the wave rider. Live in real time.
After college I went to Europe on a one way ticket, because that’s what I could afford from my teaching assistant money, and refused to think about my ride home. That is youthful impulsive in-the-moment thinking and perhaps not the best plan. However, I went on that trip, by myself, and long story short, I got a free ticket home.
Next: I moved to New York City after I was invited up to interview at an ad agency for a job I had no experience for; that led to me living in New York (I told my interviewer I was moving there before I had told myself), and ended up working for ELLE magazine and having the time of my frickin’ life.
No amount of figuring it out would have conjured up living on the candy-store island of Manhattan, interviewing and writing stories about young actors and musicians, and working with fun smart interesting people who schooled me in new worlds of art and music and thought.
Fast forward decades later.
Still figuring things out but giving advice not to.
November 2017. I’m on the phone with my niece, Taya. She’s in Chile for almost a year through the Rotary Club, staying with a local family. She is bravely living her life in Spanish, going to high school with strangers, in a foreign language a hemisphere away from home. This was 100% her initiation to try something new, her idea. What grit! But this is not enough, oh no.
She tells me with a big sigh, “I have to figure out what to do with my life.” I balk. I blink. I think.
“Taya, if I could go back and do it again [please no], you know what I wouldn’t do?”
“What?” she asks, her voice high and hopeful.
“I wouldn’t try to figure anything out. It’s a waste of time.”
“What do you mean?”
“Figuring it out amounts to nothing. It’s like chasing your tail. Spend time engaging with the world, and follow whatever spark or trail or activity or thing that interests you. Follow the bright dots and trust the rest to take care of itself.”
“Oh,” she says with a pause. “OK.” Then she laughs a bit.
“I know it doesn’t make sense. But when you’re busy figuring things out, you lose out on living life and jumping on the random, wild, crazy opportunities that present themselves.”
There is silence.
“Life doesn’t make any sense.” More quiet. “That’s a good thing!” I trumpet.
I don’t know where the conversation landed with her, but it sure made me stop and think.
A week later, I talked to my nephew who was traveling Southeast Asia, before going off to start college at University of Colorado, Boulder. I said sort of the same thing. “Don’t get caught up in figuring life out,” I said. Just DO.
I was feeling rather wise about my Figuring It out veto, until I was at a Three Principles training in La Conner.
A dozen of us were sitting in a small sun-flecked room talking about what we had learned so far. I wanted to understand* (*figure out) what the hell these 3 principles of Mind, Consciousness and Thought actually were, and how they worked together. I forced a facilitator against his will (because it’s an UNDERSTANDING, not a “GETTING”) to draw the concept on a white board, and after he was done, Anya the Russian facilitator leaned in and asked, “Does that help?”
I looked at the curved lines and arrows, the triangular ladder, and said with that high pitched hitch, “Well, sort of.” A couple people rustled in their seats and the Welch woman living in Malibu said, “This is stressing me out, getting up in our heads like this.” I looked toward the sun pushing through the blinds, saw it light up Anya’s crown like a halo; I saw the ridiculous whiteboard chart with its weather system of chartness, and sensed how I had brought the energy down in the room with my “figuring-out-ness”. It was like a perfect storm. Something in me opened and snapped:
I always do this and I never get satisfaction from TRYING TO FIGURE IT OUT.
What if I just stopped trying to figure things out. Stopped figuring IT out, stopped figuring ME out. Stopped figuring out what I was doing, how I was feeling, where I was going. Just STOPPED. It felt like a stubborn storm system moving out of the way and a bright light opening filled me. WOAW.
My figuring It Out is compulsive — and not just for myself but I get into other people’s business. for example: I can’t watch HGTV’s “Househunters International” without whipping myself into a frenzy of:
“Where’d they get their money?”“How can they afford THAT?”
“How do they think they’re going to start a business in Sardinia? They don’t even speak Italian!”
My husband loves this show. I stopped watching it because my drive to figure out these subtextual-story details drove me crazy. It drove my husband crazy too. He now watches it alone.
I’m not unique. There’s a vast tribe of Figure-It-Outers.
I know there are others out there who are in a constant state of figuring things out. People who wrestle with “Don’t Get It-Ism”. Like, “I don’t get how that person thinks she can drop everything start a business make good money have thick short hair and strong knees that run miles all over town.”
But when you get caught up in all that figuring out and trying to GET it, you steer your boat away from you and the trail you could be blazing for yourself.
THAT’S NO WAY TO LIVE.
I know there’s a shorter way to say this. Here it is:
Don’t figure IT out. Don’t strive to GET things that keep you from creating your own brilliant swirl in the world. Figuring and Getting might make you feel smart and purposeful but it’s an illusion. It creates a buffer between you and riding life’s wave of creation because you indict the mystery of living rather than celebrate it.
I’m going to experiment with NOT FIGURING things out for the next month. And when the thought to figure something out enters, I’m not going to do a thing other than notice it’s there and carry on. Maybe turn on an episode of “House Hunters International.”
Originally published at www.everydaycreative.net.