For many young professionals, from the time they were 17 years old, their entire life had been pretty much mapped out. The plan, without deviation, was: graduate from a good college; nab a coveted summer internship; attend professional school; get married; start a dream job; have children, and buy a house.
These life milestones, predicated by the larger society offer a neat road map to follow, as they promise financial stability and ultimately, domestic bliss. But what happens if the individual takes a detour, whether intentional or by divine providence, off of the designated path?
About three years ago, I sold all of my furniture and gave away the bulk of my clothing. I packed up what was dear to me, hugged my mother goodbye, and flew to Hamburg, Germany, to start a new life with my then boyfriend. The decision was multi-factorial: the rapidly changing political landscape (post Trump election); immigration policies limiting my boyfriend’s stays in the U.S.; and a lifelong dream of living abroad. After a few months of traveling throughout Europe and Africa, I quickly realized that I could not thrive in this new place. Within five months, my savings were depleted due to false promises from my new employer. Furthermore, the new city didn’t match my needs. The weather was constantly overcast and the sun rarely shone. The people were generally unfriendly and unwelcoming. This was mind-numbing, after having lived for four years, in Miami, Florida. So after six months of being unable to adjust, we returned to Miami, to start all over again.
Upon my return, I was deeply disappointed by the apparent turn of events. I was even further devastated by the feeling that I had veered off my charted course. Perhaps I had deviated too far from the predetermined life checklist, and I was paying for my risk taking. At first, I questioned myself and my decisions. After a lifetime of following the rules and doing everything by the proverbial book, how could I be in this predicament? Over time, I began to question the very system that had reared me.
I spent many hours, wondering:
-Are others consciously, or unconsciously, adhering to the checklist, even if their true desires
-Were people stuck in professions or taking certain positions, when they preferred to be freelancers?
-Were people married, when they would’ve preferred a life of serial monogamy?
- And as women of color, was the attainment of Western cultural markers of success, truly fulfilling for us?
Only now, in retrospect, do I realize that my experience in Europe, laid bare my misconceptions of life, and have shaped how I live moving forward.
I learned that:
1.Life is a winding path:
To quote Frederico Garcia Lorca, “I know there is no straight road. No straight road in this world. Only a giant labyrinth. Of intersecting crossroads”. These words ring true, especially as a woman of color. The pre-packaged life path that we are all encouraged to adhere to, does not always take into account the intersection of race and gender. In some instances, a black woman’s professional advancement may be stymied by unspoken biases in the workplace, resulting in lower wages for equitable work. This may often lead to difficulties obtaining outward markers of success. As a black woman, there is immense pressure to over-achieve; but in the pursuit of excellence, one must accept that the path will never be straight.
2.A woman’s worth is not dictated by her marital status:
The checklist does not provide an outline for finding the partner that is right for one’s emotional and intellectual needs. Instead, it dictates that a woman should be married to a man, by a certain birthday, with the specific number varying according to culture and geographic location. Despite the societal pressure, we all seek partnerships for different personal reasons. Some want romance, whereas others seek the union of families. Whatever it may be, people should marry because they want to and not because the biological clock is ticking or external forces are urging them to do so.
Thumbing through my old journals, I found my original life blueprint. I was to be married at 26 and pregnant at 28. My life hasn’t gone as planned: I met my husband at 29; I’m 33 and there are no plans of having children anytime soon. Sometimes, deviating from a life plan, may lead to something better.
3. Life’s purpose shouldn’t solely come from employment:
In early adulthood, as we transition from student to professional roles, post grad work experiences can range from seamless to quite patchy. For some of us, the first few years of our careers can be a hodgepodge of trial and failures. Even at these lowest moments, filled with doubt, it is important to take stock and realize that a job does not define us.
After my return from Germany, I reached out to mentors for professional guidance. One told me that setbacks in the first few years of employment would not determine the successes of what would be a 30 year career. The other stated emphatically, that I had to let go of the career I ‘should have’, which was based on a teenage fantasy, and forge a new path, based on who I am now.
At 31 years old, I learned that it is okay to make mistakes. When things don’t work out as planned, it doesn’t mean we have failed. I learned that to remove myself from a situation that wasn’t right, was not failure, but a triumph. I learned that whatever societal, personal or emotional barriers might get in the way, we all have the ability to start again. Sometimes tearing up the checklist, and getting off the designated path, can open up an opportunity to a happier and more rewarding life.
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