When I first joined the DrivenWoman Introduction session in January 2016, I wasn’t at all full of excitement in that cheerleader high-up-ponytail “let’s do this” kind of way. I felt anxious as I stared at the empty paper with the first exercise: what do I actually want from my life? What’s my purpose?
I realised I wasn’t really used to thinking about who I was or what I wanted. It’s not like I was unhappy in my life. In fact I was pretty satisfied with everything, and those things I wasn’t happy with – well, life has a fair bit of suffering in store for everyone, right?
So I reasoned that perhaps I should stop whining and just get on with it, push a bit harder. “Happiness is to want the things you have now”, I told myself. Grit and perseverance! And yet, something told me that maybe this wasn’t the full picture. Maybe I could ask for more.
Maybe it really was OK to want a bigger life?
The more I reflected, the more it started to feel like I was currently settling for something less than what I wanted or could have. It felt almost as though I wasn’t really living my life; rather, life was living me, not in a bad way.
I was a happy passenger in my own life that was laid out in predictable patterns before me.
Is this what they call drifting, I wondered.
According to Gretchen Rubin, 'drift' is the decision you make by not deciding, by trying to keep your options open. She illustrates in her story how drifting makes you just go through the motions rather than asking yourself what it is you want.
Drifters are often also high achievers.
The problem with this is that they perform extremely well on things that are presented to them by others, rather than something they have proactively chosen for themselves. Gretchen herself went to Yale Law School and was a successful attorney until she realised that she didn’t feel truly fulfilled.
Drifting is not an idle state of being.
In fact, yes, I was also a drifter and a busy one at that.
Things came up, I reacted to them, and whoops, another day, week, month was gone. I realised I too, had been insecure in choosing my own direction, so I had settled with what was being offered to me, and kept busy complying with expectations of the outside world.
Those expectations were of course a moving target, so the more I tried to meet expectations, the more I felt as if I was falling short. I feared letting people down so I tried even harder. And, inevitably, I demanded the same standard from others.
Drifters keep busy so that they won’t have to ask themselves the hard questions. Look, again I exceeded your expectations, so I’m surely on the right path here! Best to just stick to what I know, and get very good at that, right?
No risks taken, no love lost and most importantly, I won’t disappoint anyone.
Performing well on things that I already mastered felt reassuring, but it did nothing to push me forward in terms of learning or personal growth. I enjoyed the external validation and pats on the back but deep down I didn’t really feel worthy of praise. When my sister shared an article about the impostor syndrome, I instantly responded, “yep, I know how that feels!”
Given that I had really no clue what I wanted, there was no point in trying to write down some glorious new purpose for my life. So instead of a grand goal like starting my own company or writing a book, I went for a very simple one.
My goal was to take back my own space, claim back how I spent my waking hours.
My reasoning was that if I managed to conquer more time from work and other obligations and spend more time with my creative passions, I would free up some new energy that would carry me forward.
I resolved to try to let go of perfectionism. I even promised myself to never stay at work beyond 6pm and not read emails in the evening – and this was the hardest one of all! I realised that perfectionism created a lot of negative self-talk in my mind.
I tended to belittle the importance of my own desires, priorities and choices.
The favourite phrase of that inner voice, in Finnish, was emmäämittää. It broadly translates into “I wouldn’t ask for anything for myself”. I had mistakenly taken it as healthy modesty, but actually it was quite toxic in terms of my wellbeing. Somehow the emmäämittää implied that I had to earn happiness rather than just enjoy it as a gift in life.
In the course of last spring I slowly realised that I had to start practicing more self-compassion. Once I put my creativity goals into action, I discovered something surprising: the world didn’t fall apart just because I decided to jump out of the rat race of late evenings at the office and living in a constant state of stress. I managed to start new hobbies like theatre improvisation and creative writing, which gradually helped me to find new inspiration and put my thoughts onto new paths. I laughed a lot more and spent more time with the people I love. I allowed myself to enjoy a long summer vacation – and even then, the world didn’t fall apart!
Little by little in the course of last autumn, I started to dream about a new kind of work-life balance altogether. What if I could be my own boss one day, instead of being a slave to my calendar and excel sheets? Would that make me a less worthy person, or a happier one?
In asking these questions, I found a wonderful support in the DrivenWoman group, in being seen and accepted for who I was. The old me was just a version of a story I was telling the world about myself. With my fellow women, I explored the freedom of re-inventing myself in the company of people who didn’t really know the old me to begin with.
I started to define myself by my future rather than my past.
Sometime in April, a friend gave me a lovely notebook in which to record my journey, and I wrote on the first page:
“Courage to Want Things and Say It Out Loud”.
That became my mantra for the year 2016. Claiming back my own space led me to the realisation that I do have exciting dreams and desires that only I can reach, step by step.
The change I had been working towards finally materialised last month. I started a leave of absence from my day job and am now working as a consultant, focusing on work that I feel truly passionate about. It feels scary, exhilarating and fulfilling at the same time. I’m entering into unknown territories with the confidence that things will turn out just fine.
I’m at peace with my path. I’ve made an active choice that felt right for me.
And even if I do fail, that’s something I just can’t regret. The reward of this journey is in the constant practise of becoming less afraid of my own light and more in tune with what drives me. The joy is also in the practice of a kind and positive way of speaking to myself.
I had to do a fair bit of digging to find what I wanted, because the real me was buried under so many 'shoulds' and 'musts' defined by other people. Now I’m not afraid to explore things that really resonate with the essence of who I am.
Like Gretchen says: “to be happy, I have to know myself, accept myself and build a future on the foundation of my own nature”. And drifting won’t get me there.
Julia Ojanen is a Group Leader at DrivenWoman Finland.