“Just because you’re not doing what other people are doing, that doesn’t mean you’re failing or falling behind. You’re charting your own course and staying true to yourself, even though it would be easier to join the crowd. You’re creating a life you can fall in love with instead of falling in line. You’re finding the courage to do what’s right for you, even though it’s uncertain and scary and hard. Give yourself some credit, because these are all reasons to be proud.” ~Lori Deschene
I wouldn’t call myself a laid-back person. I have anxiety that leads me to catastrophize, and I struggle with perfectionism. That said, I do pride myself on being a person who’s able to go with the flow, who’s open to just about anything—a person who is, in a word, agreeable.
Where do you want to go to lunch? I’m okay with whatever. Which movie should we watch? I can probably find something to enjoy in most of them. What should we do this weekend? I don’t know; what do you want to do?
If I have a really strong opinion about something, I’ll speak up, but what I really enjoy is being in the company of people I care about. I’m usually most happy when everybody around me is happy. As far as I’m concerned, the details of what we’re doing don’t matter as much as the fact that we’re doing it together.
This attitude is rooted in a number of different things.
For one, I was raised in a mid-sized, West Coast, seaside town where slow movement and a languid approach to decision making were part of the local culture.
In addition, I usually took on the role of passive peacemaker in my family of origin, making sure the stress level was manageable for all involved by avoiding conflict at every turn.
Finally, I grew up immersed in a religion that believed humans were inherently bad and it was essential for each of us to follow God’s will, as opposed to our own, in any given moment.
Thanks to this combination of influences, I learned to tune out my own desires (to the point where, after a while, I couldn’t even hear them anymore) and take every reasonable opportunity offered to me as a potential good.
I have rarely said “No” in my life—not because I didn’t want to be offensive or hurtful, but because I didn’t want to miss out on what that experience might have to offer. And, there’s also the fact that I had no trust in my own imagination or sense of personal direction.
These aren’t always bad traits to have. I’ve met a lot of interesting people, seen a lot of gorgeous places, and tried some very unique foods (fried sheep brains, anyone?) because I was open to what the people around me had in mind. Deferring to the whims of others can have its perks.
Plus, it is true that sometimes other people know better than we do about certain things. I’ve found myself on many an unexpected but fruitful detour in my life thanks to an idea someone else gave me that I never would have thought of myself.
Of course, there are also some major drawbacks to letting life just happen. The biggest one for me is the fact that I don’t get much closer to my goals and dreams when I’m ready to say yes to whatever invitation or opportunity comes along.
Much like wandering around a big, unknown city with no map in hand will lead you to some novel experiences but is not a good way to get you to all of the places you actually want to see, going through life open to every option you’re offered might lead to some fun times but it can also leave you standing nowhere in particular in the end.
And I don’t know about you, but I want to be somewhere in particular. I want to be a full-time artist. More specifically, I want to be a full-time writer.
It’s a destiny that’s been calling me ever since I was young. When I was in middle school, my humanities teacher was so taken with a writing project I did that she went out of her way to tell my parents about my talent. I won the all-school writing day scholarship prize when I was a senior in high school. Imagining the future of our class on graduation day, our valedictorian gave a speech that listed a handful of students by name and their predicted successes. “Grete Howland,” he said, alongside the words “famous author.”
I was surprised to hear it. I was not a popular kid—there was no reason for him to think of, let alone mention, me out of the hundreds of people with whom I graduated on that day. Unless I really was that good. Unless this was something that was feasible for me.
However, like I said before, I am not the kind of person who’s inclined to choose a goal, set a path toward it, and make decisions that will keep me on that path until I reach my intended destination. As much as I felt flattered, it didn’t occur to me that what my classmate said on that day to the hundreds of people gathered was something I could try to make a reality with a little bit of confidence and some good old fashioned planning.
Life just went on. I did study English in college, but only because it was what I loved most, not because I had a specific use for the degree in mind. Out of college I moved back to my hometown and worked a mind-numbing data entry job while I figured out what I wanted to do next.
Traveling the world seemed exciting, and I knew friends who belonged to a global missionary organization who got to do it. Still very much devout to my faith at that point in my life, I applied for the program, raised the money, and then spent six months in New Zealand, Australia and Vanuatu just doing what I was told by the people who were leading the trip.
When I returned to the States, I was once more directionless. Graduate school seemed like a natural next step, and I had a few friends in seminary, so, yet again, I poured a lot of time and money into an interesting thing I saw the people around me doing while having no particular goal in mind.
The only thing I knew when I graduated from seminary was that I wanted to keep living in the community I’d formed during my time there, so I found a job close by and stayed in southern California. That job, as an administrative assistant at a small independent school, was particularly fortuitous because I fell in love with their progressive philosophy and decided that I wanted to teach English. Thankfully, a position opened up, and I set off on what would end up being a 7-year foray into middle school education.
There are no words to express the love and gratitude I have for the time I spent in those classrooms and the relationships I developed with students and colleagues. I witnessed seventh and eighth graders find their voices, discover deep connections across multiple subjects, and develop passionate convictions about social justice. At the same time, I also discovered after a few years that pouring all of my mental, emotional, and physical energy into helping others become better writers and thinkers left me too depleted to work on my own creative writing outside of my job.
I adored teaching, and took pride in the identity of “teacher.” But I also had to consider whether I really wanted that to be my vocation forever, working in service of others’ creativity at the expense of my own. Half-done writing projects were whispering in my ear, calling me back to them, asking me to forgo my pleasant but aimless wandering in favor of a strategic path of my own.
So I did it. Earlier this year, I walked away from teaching with the goal of finding a job that leaves space for my writing to flourish. It was a decision both scary and exciting. And even though I’m still learning to have the courage not to settle for any job I can get simply because it feels safe, I know I made the right move.
Thankfully, my spouse and some very wise friends have kept me accountable to holding out for what will move me forward on my journey. As they encourage me to make space for my destiny, despite all the risks, I am beginning to see the value in identifying and prioritizing my own dreams and desires. I think I’m finally starting to believe in my own potential—or at least believe that exploring it is worth an honest try.
It can be very comforting to take on the role of being the agreeable one. There’s no risk of rejection or failure when you’re happy to do what everyone else is doing, and when you’re willing to take whatever life hands you without holding out for more. What if more never comes?
Taking the time to consider what you really want for yourself is scary because it can feel like a good opportunity might pass you by. But the other side of that is the fact that you can just as easily miss out on something better because you decided too soon, because you didn’t have the faith that you’d actually be able to achieve what it is you really want.
So be flexible, yes. Be open-minded. Be selfless where it counts. But don’t make a habit out of letting other people make decisions for you. Don’t live your life settling for what’s in front of you just because it’s there.
Take the time to learn what it is you want to do with your life. Chart a course toward it, and go. Get somewhere in particular, or as close as you possibly can. Practice being picky. This is your life, after all.
About Grete Howland
Grete Howland is a writer, editor, and educator currently living in Portland, Oregon with her scientist spouse and formerly feral dog, Nellie. She writes about her experience growing up in and eventually leaving Evangelical Christianity at her personal blog, Weird Name, and also on Medium. Her work has been published on Across the Margin, and she is currently working on her first book, How to Leave the Church: A 7-Step Guide to Saving Yourself.