“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Short answer, I don’t know, dude!!
Anyway, this is just an eloquent way of saying what do you want to be when you grow up. It’s taken from the last line of a poem by Pulitzer Prize-Winning poet, Mary Oliver. As a graduate student, I feel like I get asked this question ALL the time (the short version, not the fancy one). I remember it happening as a kid, a teenager, a college student, and even in job interviews. I’m pretty sure everyone has gone through this inevitable onslaught of questioning about the future. It’s daunting. It makes you question if you’re ready for this whole “adult” thing. If you’re like me, you have never had a “good” answer. I’m going to attempt to tackle this question, while maintaining the position that “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable response.
I see this question posed to Harvard Business School students all the time, and their responses are shared on the Harvard Business School Facebook page. The funny thing is, it’s about the only thing that they post that I actually read. Their responses are so very, typically…Harvard. Which, isn’t inherently wrong or right, they just seem incomplete, tunnel-visioned, and somewhat misplaced, to me. Maybe that’s why I never went to Harvard. Although I get that it is formed in a business school context, I find it sad that they never mention anything outside of career goals. I, too, want to change the world. I really, really do. But, there’s more to life than an eighty hour work week.
American culture places a fixation on “the future.” It’s cute to ask three-year-olds what they want to be when they grow up, because they will say the craziest things. However, the same question invokes panic attacks in high school students, college students, and even adults. At a time that you have to ask permission to go to the bathroom, you are tasked with making the decision to go to college and pick one major, or not go to college. Both of which, will have an extreme effect on your future. Well, neat. What if you don’t know? What if you have lots of ideas? Nope, sorry, pick one.
The future is unquestionably important. Although, you can’t get there without getting past today. So, why not focus your attention on the things that you can do today? Smile, be kind, build relationships, take care of your body, challenge your mind, and do all of the things you need to do, in this moment, that put you in a place to succeed tomorrow. The future will always be in question, but I’m willing to bet that you know what you need to get done today.
Like most of us, I have absolutely no idea where my life will be in a year. I will, if all things go as planned, have a Master’s degree, no longer have cancer, and have a full-time salary again (two years of grad student earning power is more than enough). These things are fun to think about, but so is winning the Powerball lottery. Unfortunately, if all I do is think and worry about what those things will be like, reality will fall short of those daydreams. Conversely, if I do every single thing in my power today, I have a much better chance of making those daydreams my reality.
I’ll take “get it done today” for $500, Trebek! This means that for lunch today I’ll have a chicken caesar salad and some almonds instead of macaroni and cheese or pizza. I will spend time actively visualizing my tumor disappearing (Don’t knock it ’til you try it!). I will do my homework and study for my classes. I will make progress on Hunter Biomedical responsibilities. And, I will make sure to get some exercise to that I can stay strong enough to keep taking chemo. I don’t know exactly what I want to do in the future, in any area. That’s finally perfectly okay with me. But, I know that I want to do everything I can, now, in order to set myself up to take advantage of any and all opportunities that may come my way.
All I know is that twelve months from now everything will be completely different. Realizing this, I have decided to actively focus on those things that are within my control, today. You know those three of four things that your parents tell you over and over again about life, and what you should do and how you should do it, to the point where you give the off the cuff “I know” response and try not to involuntarily roll your eyes (even though they’re right, of course)? Well, this is one of those things. I think I’m finally starting to get it. Twenty-nine years – sweet learning curve ya got there, Zachary. There are things you can control and things you cannot control, and worrying about the things you have no control over does nothing beneficial for you, at all. Thanks, Dad.
We all have bad days, I get that. But, there’s nothing useful in feeling down and asking the world “why me?” Instead, ask “why not me?” Take it as a challenge and rise to the occasion. Again, it’s all about perspective and the lens at which you view your situation. You can handle whatever is thrown at you. Really, you can. Instead of it being a negative, find a way to turn it into a positive. There’s always a way.
What’s the point of all of this? It’s not to distract you from having goals in the future. It’s to get you (and myself) to actively think about how to get there instead of relying on magic. Most people don’t know what the future holds, and we never will, but that certainly does not suck. It’s friggin’ awesome! Think about it. You have the ability to make moves, to create opportunities, and to have a direct effect on what that future is for you. We are the masters of our own lives. Realize that magnitude and the power that it affords you. You never know what opportunity may arise when you focus on the things that you can control here and now. Procrastination, although I tend to be a bigger fan than I wish I was, is way too stressful. In case you were unaware, stress is not a good thing!
Next year, next month, or next week, you’ll wish you had started today. So, bright idea…start today. Drop the Netflix, put down the phone, go outside, make a new friend, read a book, tell a story, learn a new skill, eat something nutritious, exercise, write, draw, discuss, and discover. Or just start with one of those things. The world is yours, and, although life is short, it’s the longest thing you’ll ever know. I promise you’ll feel better when you make a conscious effort to be productive today.
The person you will spend the most time with in your life is yourself. You might as well make yourself as interesting possible. Git ‘r dun!