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Finding direction when facing regret

The Puzzle: How do we pick-up the pieces when we feel lost? Or when we realize that what we want to be working, isn’t really working, how do we find a path forward?

Most of the time on this blog, I break down giant hairy unwieldy problems into little baby steps. So instead of looking at a goal and feeling that deep sense of dread and overwhelm, we can look in a new light and build momentum.

Every once in a while, though, I feel lost.

Like the time I found myself living in a glorified call, halfway around the world. I just kept thinking, how on earth did I get here?

As someone who suffers from chronic back pain, I know what it feels to live in a body that feels out of place. But there’s another pain, the sense of being lost, of being uncertain, of having so many opportunities ahead and so precious few years to live out those opportunities. That’s a pain we don’t talk about enough. It’s much easier to gloss over that pain, and say reassuring platitudes – to our peers, to our loved ones and to ourselves.

 Pain stems from not being where you want to be.

Now I am the kind of person who had calculated out all of the grades I would need to have the highest GAP in my class months before my freshman year had started. I had different flow charts and organizational plans and lists of scholarships all mapped out, over and over. Somehow I just couldn’t get any of those charts to move the needle when it came to finding my first job.

I still found myself creating mind maps and decision trees on blank scrap paper traveling half-way around the world to my first job out of college. Hundreds of cold job applications resulted in three interviews. Three interviews surfaced one offer: a seven-week internship in Seoul, Korea.

The hotel room for my next eight weeks was little more than a monk’s cell. A single bed with a translucent wall hiding a toilet. A desk protruded onto the foot of the bed, no room for a chair. A mini-fridge was tucked behind the main door, with a microwave but no stove top for cooking. The floor to ceiling windows flooded the space with light from the 24/7 jumbo Tron across the bustling roundabout with at least three sky-high mall towers.

I jumpstarted my jetlag by setting off on a jog to meet my new neighborhood. The pollution was so thick, I only made it half a mile before my eyes were burning and my throat coughed up a storm.

This was not where I wanted to be. This was not how I wanted to be. This was not who I wanted to be.

That initial realization in sun-drench Seoul made me want to scream on the inside.

I’m embarrassed to even write about this, years later, because on the outside it looked like I was navigating the right path. I had mind-blowingly cool photos on facebook. But in the daily grind, I saw myself on a two-month stint with no prospect of immediate employment, let alone fulfilling work or the start of a career.

When I looked to scripture, the parable of the talents kept popping into my mind. I felt as if I were living in that parable, with no idea of what a talent was. Which of my skills were worth investing in? Where should I start? How would I know what the right opportunity was for my fledgling little talents? Was I inadvertently taking my talents and hiding them under the dirt?

Without any clear sense of direction, blank sheets of paper kept me busy each time I returned home to my barren apartment. One possibility after another was sketched out, thoughtfully considered, stuffed away in a manila folder.

Inspiration would strike – I’d scribble as fast as my fingers would allow. The next day, ideas would just fall flat. It’s as if I were holding sand in my hand, grasping for something to hold onto and nothing seemed to stick. Endless possibilities and opportunities were slipping through my fingers.

Sometimes you just have to go. You just have to pick-up a dream, even if it feels imperfect, even if getting there looks impossible, difficult and painful.

My greatest regrets come from paying too much attention to other people’s regrets, and paying too little attention to my own dreams. Discounting my dreams, even, as foolish.

I used to think that, with enough practice, I would figure out how the puzzle pieces of my life fit together. I would chart out that map of my life – and suddenly a dream for my future would be in sight. When that day came, then I would have the confidence to start really living.

My months wandering around Seoul flew by faster than the time it takes to cook Korean barbeque. Maybe it wasn’t the perfect job or the perfect city, but it was my job.

For a few short weeks, Seoul was my city. The pink neon lights mixed with intricate temples. The salty fish sauces, sweet rice and bubble tea. And – I kid you not – my office had a Gangnam style dance-break every day at 3 p.m.  

Nearly once a year, there comes a day when my eyes pop open with the morning sun and a little voice in my head says, for no explicable reason, This isn’t where I want to be. What. were. you. thinking?

I don’t know if anyone else ever stumbles into these moments. When suddenly the life you’ve been piecing together falls flat. It’s not easy to talk about, because it can contradict our lifestyle and usher in radical change.

If you’ve ever found yourself in doubt, you are not alone. That doubt topples my world and forms a pit in my stomach. It makes me want to crawl under the covers and hide all day.

But if I take a couple of deep breaths, I’ll notice a tiny tingling sensation of jitters up my spine. Maybe a new dream is on the way.

Truth: All things are being made new. Change is our constant state of living.

If you are in one of those places now, I still have a couple of starting steps to share with you. But I also know that it can be a long road ahead.

1. Be kind to yourself. If you saw a ten-year old child crying at school, would you respond with kindness or criticism? You would be kind, gentle and soothing while he cried through his feelings. Pay the same basic courtesy to yourself.

2. Try to live with the uncertainty. We often react to unpleasant emotions with a flight or fight response. Either huge burst of frustration or an avoidance of sitting through unpleasant feelings. Avoidance is never the answer. Avoidance clamps down on the possibility of learning from our emotions. I recommend Susan David’s striking Ted-Talk on using emotions as data.

3. Nothing replaces therapy. If thought rumination is holding you hostage, bring in a professional. There are still huge stigmas about therapy. The truth is that therapy can teach you new cognitive skills and help you see your identity from a fresh perspective.

4. Find a win. As a high academic achiever, I can say with certainty that I am a queen champion at this. Sometimes it doesn’t really help, but finding some kind of project can help build momentum and bring clarity to the deeper answers you’re searching for. Maybe it’s a ten-minute workout routine in the mornings or finishing a new book. Anything to build-up some confidence and draw your focus towards something positive.

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