As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live. ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an artist. I loved to draw, especially, and even took art classes on the weekends when I could. For fun.
Obviously, being an artist isn’t a viable career (or so everyone in my life told me in subtle and not so subtle ways), so instead of going to college to delve deeper into drawing or painting or sculpture, I went the safe route: art teacher.
Well, after a few semesters I decided I didn’t want to be an art teacher, so I went another safe route: graphic design. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy graphic design that much, most of the technical/pre-press stuff was way over my head (and interest level), and I turned down the one full-time job I was offered after college.
Since I was only twenty-one, adventure seemed appropriate. I moved to Vermont to work at a ski lodge, I drove cross-country, I lived in a tiny apartment in Montana, and then I lived in a tent for a while. It was awesome.
After that I went back to the safe stuff. I worked in an office here, I worked as an event coordinator there, then back to another office job.
I don’t want to make it seem like I’ve always just automatically chosen the thing that felt the safest, the most conventional, since the travels of my early twenties, because I certainly haven’t.
I quit a “good” job because it made me miserable and I wanted to get trained as a life coach.
I quit another well-paying job (that made me absolutely batty and went against all of my core beliefs) in order to stay home with my daughter, even though it seemed like there was no way to afford to do so. (We made it work.)
I started making art again, with real gusto and zeal, even though it doesn’t really make any sense beyond my own deep desire to do so.
Recently, though, I faced what feels like my biggest What-My-Heart-Wants Vs. Take-the-Safe-Path challenge ever.
After going in circles and wondering if I should bother trying to make art my main “thing,” I decided that I should apply to graduate school to become a school counselor. Because you can’t make a living as an artist, as you’ll remember.
Counseling has always interested me, I like kids, and I would have the summers off to do the thing I really like, which is, well, you already know this: art.
I spent a while researching the career and working on convincing myself I’d be able to find a job and that it would be the right fit for me. I applied about six months before applications were due and then pretty much forgot about it.
That is, until the deadline rolled around. I knew I’d hear something shortly after February 1st, and then there it was, an email inviting me to a four-hour group interview.
I can sum up the way I felt about going to this interview with one word: Ugh. I texted a friend and told her if someone else was in my position and felt the sucking feeling I was having, I’d tell them not to go.
I kept thinking, though, that I should go, “just to keep my options open.” You know, to be safe.
Before I went, I hooked up with a coach to talk me through some of what was going on in my head. What stands out to me the most about our sixty-minute conversation is that I said going to school felt like the safe option.
When she asked me what really, truly felt safe to me, in my soul, I said I felt the safest when I was in my living room, art supplies set up, light flowing through the windows, creating something.
Still, though, I went to the group interview. I was surprised by it; I enjoyed meeting the current students, the professors seemed lovely, and I was impressed with the program.
I also learned how competitive the program was—of the eighty something people there, only about thirty would get in. I didn’t think I had a chance.
I was wrong about that. In fact, I was included in the first round of applicants; a top pick. That made me, or at least my ego, feel really good.
My husband was out of town for work at the time, and we agreed to discuss it when he got back. After a lot of back and forth, I decided to accept.
I mean, I’d be taking on probably $18,000 in debt, but I’d have an almost guaranteed job when I finished! And I’d have a state pension! And I’d have summers off!
The other thing? Multiple people who have known me for a very long time told me what a great fit school counseling was for me. I used other people’s excitement about it to continue to believe that this was the right thing to do.
But then some weird stuff started happening. Conversations with my husband would often end with him saying, completely unprompted, “I wish you didn’t have to go to school.” Spiritual teachers who mean a lot to me started popping up on my Facebook or Podcast feed telling me things that I needed to know, like how to really follow my soul’s calling.
I felt like the Universe was trying to tell me that going to school was not right for me, despite seeming like the safe option. I understood that if I went, I’d be giving up what I had dreamed for myself and even my family, and that I’d be one step farther away from listening to my true self.
So I decided to withdraw.
I knew I wanted out, but every time I went to send that official email, I got scared. I kept thinking about what I’d be giving up (Stability! A pension! A “real” job!).
Finally, after a month, I did it. I sent the email from my phone while I was sitting on the floor in the living room, light pouring in the windows, a painting I was working on in front of me. I did it before I could think too hard about it.
Since then I’ve felt a variety of things. Sometimes fear, sometimes joy, sometimes worry, sometimes nothing much.
I wish I could tell you that in the month since I withdrew I’ve become a beloved artist who makes money constantly. I wish I could tell you that everything is working out perfectly. So far, though, I’m just practicing going toward what feels good and away from what feels bad.
I have faith now, faith that I’m following the right path for me. That picking something because it looks good on paper is absolutely not a reason to do something, even if other people tell you it is.
When I look back on this journey, what I see is a woman who wants what’s best for herself and her family, so is following the steps that she thinks will bring her what everyone else will see as success, and I can’t say I blame her. I’m just glad she changed her mind.
I want everyone to know that the safe path isn’t always safe, and it isn’t always right, and that only you know what’s the next step, but only if you listen closely. Here are some ideas for tuning in.
1. Listen to your body.
I just can’t understate the importance of this one. I’ve known for a long time that bodies are way better guides than minds, but sometimes I lose track of it.
I knew, for sure, that school was wrong for me because every single time I thought about starting in the fall my body, especially my chest, clenched into a tight ball. A message like that is the body saying loud and clear “wrong direction.”
2. Stop listening to your thoughts.
Just as you want to start listening to your body, you want to stop listening to your mind and your thoughts.
I know, it seems weird, because our brains are supposed to be all rational and smart and stuff, but so much of what goes on up there is completely based on fear. We worry about money, we worry what our family will think, we worry about dying alone. Those fears are just words, and if you let them lead you away from what you truly want, you’re going to be in trouble.
3. Do it a little at a time.
If you’re enmeshed in a career or relationship or financial situation that’s been going on for years and years and you have tons of people relying on you, it probably doesn’t feel so easy to just say, “Eh, I don’t want to do this anymore.”
That’s why you do one small thing at a time. If your body is giving you ulcers because you hate your job so much, but it feels like a fluttering butterfly when you think of taking a photography class, take the photography class. Try one small thing at a time, building toward the life that you really want.
4. Never buy into the idea that the safe way is the right way.
If you find yourself thinking anything along the lines of, “Well, that’s boring, but it’s a smart career to get into” or “He’s from a prominent family and would be a smart choice,” run! Or at the very least, slow down and check to see what your body and heart are telling you.
I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: This whole being human thing is hard. I believe that it can be delightful and joyful and wonderful, but it takes work.
We have to push against societal norms that tell us we should do things a certain way. We have to get clear on what we want, and be willing to pivot when that changes. We have to be flexible; we have to be aware.
My goal is to choose what feels good for me. I hope that you’ll do your best to choose what feels right for you, too, even if it’s not what other people think is safe.