Archive for June, 2013


Find Your Own Light

Last week, I spoke to high school students for career day. My first caveat is that I can’t be called a career expert. Second, I’ve experimented often and had wildly different moments in my own life. I’ve spent two months studying Tango in Argentina, worked summers in Yosemite National Park, sat at a computer working on a hiking book and written complex reports on water policy; I certainly haven’t followed a traditional path. That said, I have gleaned a few tidbits of wisdom regarding happiness from friends, family and my own experience.

And I’d love it if the students found happiness, and there is an essential question they must answer to achieve it. It is simply, “What lights you up?”

It sounds like such a cliche to say, “Pursue your passion.” But it is vital to long-term health, and it’s a challenge that goes unmentioned for most of high school. In general, students have gone through a regimented system, which requires approval from outside sources, such as peers, family and college admissions committees. So knowing yourself and trusting your instincts is a relatively new thing. It’s a reversal. We’re taught to conform, and suddenly, we’re supposed to make major life choices and create our own purpose. And that’s hard work.

Many people opt to march in lockstep with everyone else, instead. So what’s the big deal if you do that? Say you take a mediocre job, sit in an office, collect a paycheck and vacation in the Bahamas. Is that so bad? Yes.

Actually, in the first world where survival isn’t an issue, it’s quite significant. Being inauthentic leads to bad relationships, poor jobs, physical and mental malaise, and a general sense of dissatisfaction. It means you’ll be looking to others to create meaning for you, and you’ll get lost in the fray and end up in the therapist’s office wondering what happened and why you’re blue. As the Dalai Lama says, “If you look to others for fulfillment, you will never truly be fulfilled.”

Share Your Joy

But how do you figure out who you are? You experiment, you test yourself, you try new things, and you don’t give up. When I was in high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do; I knew only that I wanted to go to college.  So I got in. But I distinctly remember sitting in the dorms, scared by my own thoughts. It was the first time I began to think critically about life. I realized that it wouldn’t matter if I owned a big house, if I’d sold my youth and vitality for it.

Suddenly, the question of “what to do”  loomed large, and I got busy. Three years later, after taking many general education classes and reading a ton of books, I chose to major in journalism and literature, which was my own reversal. (I was voted “most likely to make a million” in high school.)  In writing, I found that I could understand the world better, and I enjoyed struggling to know. I am happy that I made that choice.

People often mistake self-awareness for selfishness, and vice-versa. But generally, if you live a life of your own making, you’ll feel gratitude at the gift of each day. And you won’t be selfish. Instead, you’ll feel empowered to help others. That’s when altruism makes sense. When the Dalai Lama says, “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others,” you’ll get the meaning. But there is an order to these events. When you sit on an airplane, if there is an emergency, you’re supposed to put the oxygen on yourself, and then on others. And that’s because you can’t truly aid others without your own source of light, your own oxygen. While it feels good to lend a hand and it can lift your mood temporarily, the feeling won’t last unless you’ve done your own work. As Bell Hooks says, Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape. 


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