By Julie Lythcott-Haims
One summer evening when I was twenty-seven years old, I sat on the concrete slab porch of my house and bawled like a baby. I was living in Silicon Valley with my wonderful husband, and worked as a first year associate at a prestigious Bay Area law firm where I earned plenty of money and praise for my hard work. Yet, somehow, inexplicably, when it came to my work life (which felt like my whole life), I was miserable and had a knot in my stomach every Sunday night at the thought of going back to work the next day. To make matters worse, everyone seemed to think I had a great job, because of the money, prestige and other trappings of success that came with it. Moreover, I knew I had no right to be miserable—my parents were loving and supportive and they’d given me a great education. And with that strong foundation, I thought I’d done everything right—the right schools, activities, achievements, and now, job choice. As I sat on the cold concrete behind my house that night I tried to imagine my life as a map and then took an aerial view of it, and understood that somehow I’d ended up on the extraneous periphery of my own life.
I was bewildered. How did I end up here, I wondered through tears. How did I make such poor choices on my own behalf?
I’m now forty-seven and in the twenty years since that miserable night I managed to leave corporate law and go on to create a new career for myself as a university dean, where I had the incredibly joyous job of mentoring college students. Between what I learned on my own life journey, and from observing so many young humans struggling to craft a meaningful and purposeful life, here is my advice for how to live the life you imagine:
STEP 1: Figure out what you want to do.
STEP 2: Give yourself permission to be that person.
STEP 3: Dream it, tell it, plan it, and do it.
I do believe it is that simple.
STEP 1: FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU WANT TO DO
Let’s go back to that cold, concrete porch where I sat alone with my misery as a young professional woman. It was pre-Internet—which meant I had little besides my own thoughts to aid me in brainstorming a way to a happier life—so I got up from the porch and went back inside the house and got a piece of paper and a pencil. Then I sat down at our kitchen table and drew a line down the middle of the page. On the left I wrote, “what I’m good at,” and on the right I wrote, “what I love.” It took awhile for the thoughts to come and I sat there jabbing the eraser end of the pencil repeatedly against the table. But I persisted. My hunch was that the sense of meaning and purpose I was craving would come from knowing the answers to these questions and crafting my professional life accordingly.
I would turn out to be right.
STEP 2: GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO BE THAT PERSON
Many of us have at least some inkling that we’d really love to do X, but then in deference to the cacophony of other peoples’ expectations we convince ourselves that X just isn’t in the cards. For example, my brainstorming exercise at the kitchen table that night revealed among other things that I was good at working with people and loved helping people on their path in life. But was I brave enough to quit my prestigious corporate job, take a big pay cut, and go help people? Not exactly. You see, I believed that being a people person was easy, obvious, or trivial and that helping people was somehow not serious work (and therefore I didn’t see these things as leading to the important work to be done by a highly educated person such as myself). So, first, I had to value these things about myself: give myself permission to be that self, so to speak. Only then could I dream of the jobs that might allow me to put these skills to use.
Since I’d spent so much time doing what I thought family and peers valued or expected of me (which is how I ended up in corporate law instead of being a lawyer to the outcast and underserved which is why I’d gone to law school in the first place), I was kind of a wimp when it came to telling friends and family what I really wanted to do with my life. I remember telling a family friend—a fellow corporate lawyer and highly respected man—that I wanted to leave the law to work on a college campus, and he abjectly laughed in response and added that college administrators were mindless bureaucrats. That conversation was 20 years ago yet I still remember it—being ridiculed when you finally have the guts to say what you want to do with your life isn’t something you easily forget. It takes tremendous courage to pursue your dreams regardless of what others think or say.
STEP 3: DREAM IT, YES, BUT ALSO TELL IT, PLAN IT, AND DO IT.
Knowing how I wanted to contribute to life by putting my skills and passions to work, and giving myself permission to do those things was a huge breakthrough. But believing in myself and dreaming about it wasn’t enough. I had to share it with the universe, or, to put it more practically, I had to talk about it, make a plan, and work hard to make it happen.
Once I was certain that I wanted to work with students, I began applying for jobs at Stanford University (my undergraduate alma mater). Unfortunately, just because I now knew that this was the work I wanted to do didn’t mean the profession was ready to embrace me; over the course of three years I got rejected three times, either for lacking the requisite experience or for being viewed as overqualified given my law degree and experience as a lawyer, and with each rejection I felt that an escape hatch had been shut in my face. The third rejection came with some searing but important feedback: we’re worried you’re not a team player. As they very candidly explained that this meant I talked too much in the interview process, I reflected back on the experience and saw exactly what they had seen. I was acting desperate. I needed to calm down, put others first, and really listen. The good news was, while I didn’t get any of those jobs, in applying for them, I got introduced to people in the field, and a few of them turned into mentors who connected me to someone else, served as a reference, and gave me advice along the way. These people became my network—a network that would only grow bigger and more strong as the years went on.
When I finally got my first job working with students, I showed up every day with a willingness and eagerness to do anything and everything that might be needed, and I thought outside the box about how we could do things more effectively. I was making far less money than I’d made as a lawyer, but received tremendous intangible benefits from doing work that I loved every day. The knot in my stomach disappeared and the light was dancing in my eyes again. I could feel it—and others noticed, too. Over the years my career took a number of leaps forward but there were plenty of setbacks along the way as well. Each setback was an opportunity to go back to Step One, Two and Three.
As a university dean I got to sit with thousands of young adults contending with the same doubts and insecurities I grappled with in my younger days. My job wasn’t to tell them what to do but to open them up to their own selves by asking them good questions about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of their expressed intentions. Then I’d watch in admiration and awe as they began to identify want they really and truly wanted to do, gained courage to be that person, and made choices and plans accordingly.
If you’re going through this, first know that it’s okay, it’s normal—this is how life unfolds for many of us. But second, I challenge you to look at Steps One, Two, and Three. Who are you? What are you good at, and what do you love and value? What kind of work would sit at the intersection of those things? If you can give yourself permission to be that person and chart the path most right for you, then you are well on your way to living the life you imagine.