on being good
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Mary Oliver, from "Wild Geese"
At a certain point, people stop asking us what we want to do. They ask us what we will do, what we do, what we have done. At a certain point, we stop doing what we want. We think before we speak and act. We make decisions based on importance, rate of success, cost-benefit analyses.
Friends of mine know that I am a serial job-hopper. Opportunities seem to come to me from nowhere: a few hours now and then, a summer contract, something that would be easy, something I'd be good at. People always think of me.
On one hand, I'm grateful for those who believe in my skills and expertise. On the other, I recently realized that I have no idea what I want to do.
The first thing I remember really wanting was to play violin. My older brother played, so I saw the concerts. I wanted to be up there with them, doing what they did. Then I wanted to switch to piano; my grandmother played piano and I wanted to play like that, and in fifth grade, I wanted to play trumpet. They told me I'd be better at French horn, so I played that for 10 years.
In my college preparatory high school, I wanted at various times to go on and study literature, history, and chemistry: all after the strong and intelligent teachers I was taught by, the women I wanted to emulate. In my senior year, when I realized that I didn't want to attend a university, I wanted to work for Lyric Opera of Chicago, which I did; and a year later when I still did not want to go to college, I wanted to become a luthier, which I did not. Instead I went to school anyway and then quickly left with dreams of becoming a chef.
I have learned that I am utterly paralyzed by a need to be good. It seems trivial to use words like "perfectionism" and "achievement" when those are the ones we casually pepper into self-congratulatory job interviews. I meet plenty of middle-aged and older people who laughingly say they are still searching for what they want to be when they grow up.
I do not have that feeling, wandering through possibility. I have a crippling fear of failure. My decisions have been driven, more than anything else, by the desire to please people who believe in me and never to make mistakes.
It extends beyond my work, of course: I have relentlessly searched for the best charities to donate to, the most ethically-made clothing, the healthiest diets and exercise regimens, the longest-lasting lipsticks, the most extensive skincare rituals, the least wasteful ways of living. It is no wonder that my compulsion is perpetuated when well-meaning life hackers continually advise us even on the best ways to procrastinate, waste time, be lazy, and, of course, fail.
All that has led to this: I have no idea what I want.
I took the Sokanu career assessment at my doctor's recommendation, and many times through the course of the 40-minute test, I found myself answering based on skills I thought I could capitalize upon, instead of interests I actually hold. Even things I like -- painting, music -- are hampered by the knowledge that I am not as good as I want to be: not as technically proficient nor artistically sensitive, and the work itself is not economically viable nor seriously respected. In all of life, I can never live up to the astronomically high standards I set for myself.
Sometimes I feel as though I am losing myself. Then I wonder if I miss that person because I liked her or because she was simply better than I am now. Better at what, I don't know.
I am learning, through lots of work, the barriers I have created. I am trying to knock them down, but I don't know if there is anything on the other side. I guess I'll have to wait and see.