I’ve been rather enjoying the process of writing these blog posts recently. Someone asks me a thought-provoking question and I allow myself to let my stream of consciousness flow until I have something that has hopefully been of some use to the questioner and that others such as yourself can also gain something out of.
This week the question that came my way went something like this: “Ram, there are so many options in front of us in terms of what we can do and who we can become in our future. A luxury the previous generations didn’t have. Call it the ‘problem of plenty’ or whatever else you wish, this does end up causing more confusion.
For those of us who haven’t known that we want to do/be from the day they were born, how do we know what is the right path for us to take? For instance, I have been switching fields ever since I can remember, because I haven’t found something that has stuck.
I feel closer to it now after having experimented with so many things, but I wonder if the search will really ever end? How does one finally arrive at a decision that they dedicatedly work towards and not give in to shiny-object-syndrome & switch paths at every given crossroads?”
I thought this was such a rich question that I decided to give my answers in layers, instead of steps. You can stop after the first one if that suits you. Or let the onion peel away and take you deeper & deeper.
When we face such a conundrum, it is important to see if we’ve first stopped to examine where this feeling that we’re experiencing is coming from. When something makes us feel unhappy or unfulfilled or dissatisfied or anything really, what is it saying to us?
At a certain point in your life, you labelled those particular feelings as unhappy or unpleasant or something else – nobody told you to do so. Something happened to you or around you and made you feel a certain way, and thus you attributed & labelled it in a certain way within you.
The corollary to that is if you feel a certain way (discontent or dissatisfied) then you go ahead and take some sort of action to change the way you feel.
As the saying in Hindi goes “jaisi drishti, waisi srishti” – that essentially means whatever you focus your attention on, it grows. If you focus your attention on your unhappiness and dissatisfaction, then guess what grows?
Experiment & Visualize
A part of us believes that there is something out there that is better than what is in front of us. That is the reason the feeling of dissatisfaction arises. So, we start experimenting to try and find what that next thing could be.
But the problem is we are not able to articulate what that next thing is that would give us what we want and so we struggle. If there was one way to describe it, it would be through the lyrics of the song by The Raspberries, which goes, “I don’t know what I want, but I want it now!”
To give you an example, imagine going to a travel agent and saying something to this effect: “I want to go…somewhere. I find my home boring.” What do you think will happen? Versus if you say “I’ve been stuck at home for so long and it’s too hot. I want to go to Shimla for the upcoming long weekend.” The latter is so much more specific and actually provides you with a good probability of landing up in Shimla. The former doesn’t get you anywhere really.
This means that while experimentation in itself is great, without a certain clarity around what you’re focusing on and why, it is a pointless exercise.
This is why I believe the act of creative visualisation can help sharpen that hazy image in your head. For instance, if you are thinking of doing up your home in the future, using a vision board allows you to form concrete ideas in your head and make external representations that are more specific.
You may want an airy, open space with a sea facing view, a dedicated meditation room, a space for your work…the works.
The same applies in your career. “I want to help people” is too vague, versus “I want to help people who are dealing with stress & anxiety by using the techniques of yoga & meditation” is super specific and can give you a clearer idea of what your immediate next steps can be to get there.
This visualization is merely the hypothesis of the life you want for yourself. The next step would be to shift your experiments to validate your approach. And if fails to get validated, find another route.
Ask yourself: Is life a discovery? Or is it a journey – where you’re going step by step in a prescribed manner?
If you subscribe to the discovery theory, then these experiments will not bother you. If find yourself unhappy, then you are probably subscribing to the journey theory.
One important thing to remember as you are trying to figure out your path is your relationship with money. You can’t talk your way out of money – unless you’ve got a big inheritance you’re entitled to. Be honest about money and its role in your life and see how you can overlay your vision with being financially stable.
Explore the aspect of ‘satsang’. This Sanskrit term is derived from two root words – ‘sat’ meaning truth and ‘sangha’ meaning community, company or association. In seeking company of those who are where you wish to arrive one day, many lessons can be learnt. You do not need to reinvent the wheel every time.
Look for people who have the kind of work/career/lifestyle that is close to what you desire for yourself and ask them how they got there – the lessons they learnt, the mistakes they made. This will help you cut short your own journey – by learning through others, instead of having to do each and everything yourself from a-z and figuring it out.
With anything new & exciting, it is crucial to remember to be level-headed. Don’t be in a rush, study and do your research before going all in on something.
Short-Term vs Long-Term
As human beings we are not built to think long-term. If there’s pain, we think it’ll continue forever. Think about the time you’ve ever faced something hard – the death of a loved one or some form of loss – it feels like it will last forever. Even joy and happiness – whether it is from of falling newly in love or buying something we’ve had our heart set on for long – we think the feeling will continue for the rest of our lives, when the truth is far from it.
In doing so, we overemphasize the short-term. And discount the long-term. In order to really progress towards your goals, you’ve got to step back and ask what is it that you want long-term. When you’re clear about your vision, it gives you a better sense and perspective on how to deal with the short-term, especially those things that are not so pleasant to deal with.
You can look at it from two perspectives:
1) “I am standing here & now – I can look around and I see that things are broken, I am unhappy, the future looks bleak, etc.” In taking this approach, these thoughts become predominant in your head and end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
2) “I am standing here and now. It is what it is – this moment is inevitable. I look ahead and see the kind of life I want – the image is clear in my head. So let me get up and do some experiments to see how I can get there, slowly & steadily.”
This seems like the perfect moment to bring in a post I made on LinkedIn a few weeks back which went something like this: “Sometimes it takes a truly long time to realise we’ve been gifted.” Which essentially means that often, in our inability to deal with the short-term perceived pain, we throw our ‘gift’ away.
Attitude of Character Building
A friend of mine was once vacationing in Kashmir with his family, back in 2012. The journey from Jammu to Srinagar was arduous. There were cranky kids on board. Many difficulties were faced during the journey. To all this his response was something that ended up staying with me for a long time. And that was: “This is all character-building.”
And maybe that’s the attitude we need to take – to realise that all that we are going through, especially the pain, the uncertainty, is all playing a phenomenal role in building our character. Think about how bland and uninteresting you would be if you had never faced an adversity in your life.
Once this attitude is set, it will help you look at situations differently and will help you move away from the story you’ve been playing inside your head.
And this attitude, I believe, can be greatly enhanced by adopting some form of spiritual practice. What you pick would be personal to you, but I would highly recommend doing so. It can make the journey of discovery sweet and help you get in touch with internal aspects that may be hard to access otherwise.
In all of this one thing to remind yourself is to not attach your identity to what you do. There are people who have been doing the same thing for 30, 40, 50+ years of their life and are living a rich, fulfilled life. That’s because their lives are well-rounded to include various aspects of their lives, out of which their job/career is just one of the many.
So, peel away at those layers and stop when you feel you’ve come far enough for the moment. And then once you’ve done the work, pick the onion up once again and resume peeling.
There may be a few tears along the way, but it will all be worth it.