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notes to a working womanFINDING BALANCE, PASSION, AND FULFILLMENT IN YOUR LIFE
By Luci Swindoll
W Publishing GroupCopyright © 2007 Luci Swindoll
All right reserved.
Chapter Onethe wandering
THE AMAZING VALUE OF DEAD ENDS, FALSE LEADS, AND ENTRY-LEVEL JOBS The content of the job is largely irrelevant. The point is to experience. -Richard Bolles The Three Boxes of Life
Gail Cox had gone for an easy one-hour hike in the woods. Dressed in a bathing suit and caftan and wearing tennis shoes, she set out on a hot Monday morning to see the wildflowers at nearby Stoddard Lake. Although the trail was rougher and more indistinct than expected, Gail was so entranced by the beauty around her-the shimmering lake, a snowcapped peak, the carpet of flowers-she stopped noticing whether or not she was on the trodden path. When she started back to her vacation cabin later that afternoon, she found herself far from the trail.
At first Gail was more annoyed than alarmed, but she became quite uneasy when her wandering continued. The terrain turned steeper and more treacherous. A sodden meadow pulled at her tennis shoes. She fell, rolled down a hill, and finally stopped herself with her walking stick.
This is ridiculous, she thought. This is an hour's walk. What's wrong with me? Where's the trail?
Gail was a newspaper reporter, respected by her coworkers for her common sense, remarkable memory, and quick wit. At forty, she had learned to be self-reliant, so no one had been particularly surprised when she decided to vacation alone at a retreat in California's rugged Trinity Alps. But now she herself was beginning to doubt the wisdom of the trip.
After a few hours of stumbling through the underbrush, Gail Cox had to admit, I'm definitely lost, and I've been doing everything wrong. People who are lost panic and go in circles and die. But Gail was determined not to die, so she slowed down and took stock of her situation.
First, Gail determined she was most in danger of heat exhaustion, dehydration, breaking an ankle, hitting her head, and having her tennis shoes fall apart. Less likely were snakes and hypothermia. And too remote to bother with were bears, starvation, maniacs, lightning, and ghosts. Okay. I can handle this.
It was becoming clear she'd probably have to spend the night in the woods. But at daybreak, she decided, she'd hike down to a nearby stream and wait for a rescue team-which she was sure would be dispatched when she failed to return to her cabin.
To sleep, Gail curled up on the ground and used her purse and shoes for a pillow. When she heard rustling in the bushes, she said, "Go away," in a firm voice, and the rustling stopped.
At dawn Tuesday, she found an old press release in her purse and wrote a note saying she was unhurt, "if you discount my acute embarrassment at the problem I'm causing."
There was no rescue Tuesday, although she saw a white helicopter flying away from her over a ridge. On Wednesday morning, she decided to follow the stream, which ran down a rocky gorge filled with boulders and fallen trees. When the banks became impassable, she walked down the middle until she hit rapids or waterfalls. All along, she left little piles of stones as signs for the rescuers.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Gail came upon a small, level clearing with a pile of decaying firewood and a rusted beer can. Relieved at that sign of human life, she lay down and soon was asleep.
Thursday morning she awoke to the dying sound of a low-flying helicopter over the opposite ridge. Desperately she raced around the campsite, gathering dry pine needles to start a fire and signal rescuers. But the helicopter was gone by the time the needles finally caught.
At that point, Gail determined that helping herself was even more important than trying to notify rescuers. So she began to make some decisions. Amazingly, she found that the decision-making process itself boosted her spirits. Right or wrong, it produced the feeling of being in control.
Gail decided to spend all of Thursday at her newfound campsite recuperating-and without question, she needed the rest! By then she had a knot on her left shin, a large purple bruise on her calf, and a cut on her leg. Her lips were swollen and cracked, her big toe was scraped, and her shoulders were completely covered with insect bites. So she rested. That helped. She also discovered that if she carefully tended the fire, she could sleep an hour at a stretch all through the day and night.
Friday morning, she washed her clothes in the river, put on the wet swimsuit, and had just finished drying her caftan over the fire when a man's voice startled her: "Hello there." Turning, she saw a young man carrying a creel and fishing pole.
"I've been lost out here since Monday by myself," Gail managed to croak, "and I am very glad to see you." Her wandering was over.
Rescuers later told Gail Cox that she'd done all the right things to save herself. And she returned home more or less unscathed. But here's the most important takeaway in this story: she claims she learned lessons from her experience that she'll never forget.
For one thing, before she discards something as insignificant as a paper towel, she asks herself, "Is this something I might need?"
She also marvels at the luxuries we all take for granted, such as being able to get a drink of water without having to lie on her stomach.
And Gail is much more conscious of her own mortality. The day after her rescue, a young army reservist with survival training and experience in the mountains was reported missing in the same area where Gail had been lost. His body was found six days later at the base of a cliff.
Today Gail Cox finds herself telling people, "When you're lost in the mountains, you can either stay in one place waiting for the searchers, or you can wander around and take action to save yourself. The first way enhances your chances of being rescued. The second enhances your whole life."
Nobody likes to be lost. It's a terrible, scary feeling. Being lost results in panic and fear, bewilderment and confusion, much soul-searching and wandering around to find a way out of the maze. The very definition of "lost" is thoroughly negative: "not spent profitably or usefully; wasted, attended with defeat."
Nevertheless, Gail Cox, who was lost for five days in the wilderness, reports that during that time she learned lessons about life she could not have learned otherwise-lessons that helped shape her future.
But how does her story help us?
At the very start of this book, I compared the professional journey to a road with a beginning and an end. But the truth is that we don't always get on that road right away. Many of us spend "lost" time wandering around before getting on the bus.
It's right there that we get hung up. We become discouraged because we can't seem to get off the dime. We've graduated from school, planned our future, raised our kids, so we feel we simply have to know exactly what to do. We're stymied by the attitude that if we don't charge out like a racecar in the Indy 500, leading the pack, we're failures. We visualize any wandering from the direct route to have no value.
Of course, that's not true for everyone. Some women know from their youngest years exactly what they want in terms of a working life, and with clear and singular goals in mind, they follow their dreams toward fulfillment. That happens, although I think it's rare.
Other women have a career thrust upon them by circumstances: having to be the breadwinner because of the illness, divorce, or death of a spouse; having inherited a leadership responsibility they didn't voluntarily choose; having enlisted their services in an activity that started out small and grew into a big-time operation. These people, too, may start on their path without too much wandering.
But for most of us, the career path begins down a rather circuitous route. One door opens that we find appealing, so we walk through it. Then another opens, somewhat off the beaten path, and we walk through it, too, because we feel it will add to our knowledge or advancement or both. Later, perhaps realizing that neither of these doors led to vistas that provided the satisfaction or fulfillment we were looking for, we resign those positions and try something else.
All the while, there may be a hazy goal on the horizon of our minds, but it's so far away we can't be absolutely sure it's always there or really what we want-it comes and goes. So we rabbit-trail, for years sometimes, in search of that ideal career or job that will provide the ultimate attainment we seek in life.
Many people call this period of time their "lost years"-the years without value or gain, the years when "I could have accomplished something but didn't." Consequently, they often view these years with regret or disappointment.
I differ. I call such a period "the wandering," and I believe it can be the most important and profitable time of anyone's life. The information gathered and the lessons learned during this interval are relevant to the rest of our careers and, more importantly, the rest of our lives.
At the most basic level, this time of dead ends, false leads, and entry-level work points us toward experience. We may not be on the career road yet, but for many of us, this is the time when we are first exposed to some of the artifacts of the working world: being on time, handling money, taking orders, relating to other people, negotiating, enduring discipline, finishing a task, and so on. Again, these are extremely basic lessons, but there's simply no way to achieve your professional goal without learning them. And they're important for living an integrated life, not just getting ahead in the working world.
The time of wandering can also teach us some important lessons about what we don't want-what's not right for us. And these negative lessons, too, can be valuable in keeping us on the right professional road later on.
How long we wander around before getting on the path that leads to our professional niche depends on many factors. Some people settle into their workplaces and their niches very quickly; others of us wander a great deal.
It certainly took me a while to get moving in a clear direction! Just for fun, I've made a list of all the jobs I've held since I began working some fifty-two years ago, as a baby-sitter at the age of twelve. At each of these posts, I actually received payment for my duties. They are listed in the order they occurred, with a few overlaps:
> baby-sitter > lawn maintenance helper > door-to-door magazine salesperson > salesperson in a variety store > salesperson in a department store > summer camp staff worker > traveling vacation Bible school planner > waitress > swimming instructor > teacher > opera chorister > soloist > union rep for the American Guild of Musical Artists > traveling rep for a college > artist > greeting card designer > china painter > draftsperson > technical illustrator > radio/TV guest > rights of way agent > manager of rights of way department for oil company > editor > speaker > author > vice president of public relations > core speaker for Women of Faith
As you can see, I did quite a lot of "miscellaneous" work before developing any kind of meaningful career. During all those years, many times I felt defeated or lost. I often asked myself, What is going to become of me? What do I really want to do with my life? How can I ever get ahead or make any money if I don't settle into something permanent?
There were other occasions when I could feel myself on a roll. But I couldn't imagine what I was rolling toward. Little did I realize that beneath the frustrations and anxieties of my seemingly haphazard career, something was actually happening that was God-directed and important. Willy-nilly, in order or out of order, back and forth, I was learning how to cope with life's demands and deal with the issues that face each of us in our life's pursuits.
In many (I would say most) instances, I was too young to see it; therefore, the benefits from my wandering years didn't become clear to me until I was much older. That's unfortunate because each job I held taught me something about a job that was yet to come, but because of my own eagerness to move ahead or dissatisfaction with the duties at present, I couldn't perceive that the truths and lessons I was learning were going to benefit me for a lifetime of living, not just working.
Almost everything I learned in those early jobs proved of value as building blocks for later professional success. But the essentials were not clarified in my mind until some ten or fifteen years ago. Amazingly, I had written many of those lessons down in notes in my journal or little notebook each year. There it was in black and white: a lesson I learned, a trend I noticed, a change that took place. Because I had jotted a few notes, I could see what had happened even though I wasn't aware of exactly what God was doing at the time I was in it.
My own wandering occurred when I was much younger, but some women experience it later in life, particularly when they are starting out in a new career direction. Lessons learned, however, can be valuable at any age.
I used to feel that since much of what I learned about work and career resulted from wandering around without a conscious direction, it was largely unusable and unsystematizable-devoid of organizing principles. But I was wrong. I felt that much of my life had been wasted, but I was wrong.
So if you are on that same merry-go-round or live with the mind-set of defeat because you're not yet settled in the goals you hope to achieve, there's hope in these organizing principles, based on Gail Cox's experience in the mountains.
>> PRINCIPLE #1: Don't Discard Your Scraps Before you toss out any information or tidbits of wisdom as insignificant or useless, ask yourself, Is this something I might need?
I have a friend living in Seattle who is a perfect example of what I'm trying to say. A bright, charming Christian girl, she's a college graduate with a degree in communications, yet so far she has been unable to get on the right road toward her desired goal. In a letter to me she made reference to this uncertain period in her life, telling me two things in particular she's learning during her wandering years. I find this information wise for one so young.
First, get out of debt. The number one piece of advice I have for those in their wandering years is not to wander too far with only credit cards in your pocket, especially if you don't have a stable job or stable career goals.
Second, work through your personal problems. Leave that baggage behind you somewhere along the way. Then when you decide to settle down in a permanent relationship and/or career, all these unsettled issues won't come back to haunt you.
Look also at some well-known professional newspaper columnists who have admitted to "saving the scraps" of their experiences. Erma Bombeck confessed that she "had no goals whatsoever" when she began writing a column for a suburban Ohio newspaper. But her subjects-kids and carpools-wound up netting her a minimum of five hundred thousand dollars annually just because she never regarded the vignettes of her life as insignificant.
Or Ellen Goodman, a crusader for the Boston Globe who tracks social change and reports the process. Unlike a lot of columnists, who make use of assistants to scout ideas and clip newspapers, Ms. Goodman chooses her own subjects and does her own research. She does this because no one else knows what she's looking for. "It's mysterious," she writes. "I'm collecting string all the time." The smallest scrap of news or information might become the basis for a column.
Or there's Bea Hines, a wonderful black writer for the Miami Herald who says it's her "responsibility to be a watchperson for people who can't fight for themselves." Widowed in 1964 with two young sons, Hines, then a maid, answered every ad in the newspaper that said "Equal Opportunity Employer." She was finally hired at the Herald as a file clerk for sixty dollars a week-ten dollars more than she was making as a maid. In time, she worked up to being a staff reporter. But she acknowledges now that her experience as a maid taught her more about all kinds of people than she could ever learn as a reporter. For years she's been able to use those scraps of her early experience to build a completely different kind of career. Savvy magazine named Bea Hines one of the top five women columnists in America.
Excerpted from notes to a working woman by Luci Swindoll Copyright © 2007 by Luci Swindoll. Excerpted by permission.
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