Our three children are now in their 20s and exploring the diverse roads of life. By that I mean they are making decisions about whether to go to graduate school, what jobs to seek, and what career trajectories they might pursue. It is a time of decision-making, but unlike decisions of the past, these are made on their own — with requested parental input pondered, but decisions resting solely on their shoulders. And I see how such decisions weigh heavily upon them at times.
Thinking back to my own early 20s, I remember many forks in the road and the worry and distress often accompanying those decision points: jobs I tried that turned out not to be what I expected, graduate school applications denied, options cut short by obstacles beyond my control. But what I learned in the process is to try and try again. When one road was blocked, I found another route. Perhaps the endpoints shifted from ones I so strongly wanted to ones I hadn’t known I wanted, but things had a way of changing in directions that turned out to be educational — and often inspirational in their own right.
It is difficult to convey to those beginning this journey that life has a way of righting itself, especially if you learn to trust yourself. Without discovering things that “don’t feel right,” you will never discover those that do. The best message I discovered was to explore and experiment. Life is long, and there are many moments for self-correction. Do not be afraid to change course when you believe the direction is not right. It is in the realization that a decision and direction is not for you that you learn about yourself. Gandhi said it best in his autobiography of truth. You must experiment to learn about yourself and life.
There are no mistakes, only experiences from which one can learn more about oneself.
Looking back on my career trajectory, I see the unexpected turns that shape where I am today. As a graduate student I studied anthropology thinking I would specialize in primatology and human evolution. But in graduate school I learned about behavior genetics, a relatively young field that was cross-disciplinary in design. I shifted to that discipline and began a career researching the genetic basis of human behavior. Graduating, I turned my attention to understanding autism and, later, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, spending 25 years researching and teaching as a professor. But at 47, I discovered meditation and became an advocate of introducing mind-body practices such as these into higher education as well as the public because of their great benefits to health and well-being. That led to me writing a book on these benefits (”Fully Present: the Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness”) that introduced me to writing for a lay audience instead of the scientific community. I fell in love with creative writing, and that led me to blogging and writing another book on growing up in 60s America (in progress) that led me to explore how cultures shape belief systems. That — coupled with traveling to underdeveloped countries — led me to form a new company with my husband dedicated to bringing literacy to the bottom of the economic pyramid through low-cost mobile phones. From literacy (and books), we can see these alternative belief systems.
Life has a way of twisting and turning unexpectedly, whether that is in career, family, or personal self awareness.
The best advice I can offer my own children or others at this early stage of life is this: Be present for the uncertainties of life to surprise you. Do not cling to tightly to any idea of where you might be going. Get up every day and give whatever you might be doing your best effort. And most of all, trust yourself and love yourself.
Be kind to yourself. Be compassionate with yourself. To trust yourself means you must love yourself. With that you will you find true value in everything you do, whether it seems “right” or “wrong” at the time. And you will discover that whatever you do brings out the best in you and you bring out the best in it if you are fully present for the experience.
Enjoy your travels in 2011.
This post first appeared on www.psychologytoday.com.