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When Your Foundations Move
The Three Crucial Transitions in Life and Career
By C. Michael Thompson
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 C. Michael Thompson
All rights reserved.
The First Shift: Into Your Own
But the meaning of life is not exhaustively explained by your business activities, nor is the deep desire of the human heart answered by your bank account, even if you have never heard of anything else. —Carl Jung
The greatest derangement of the mind is to believe in something because we wish it to be so. —Louis Pasteur
Taylor Gattis was on the path. Better put, she was on trajectory. As if shot from a cannon, she had blown through the best education her parents could provide, from the "right" kindergarten to the classy gated college to the prestigious MBA program. And in between there had been all the accoutrements necessary to produce a finished product her parents could be proud of: flute lessons, soccer camp, study abroad, the occasional tutor when needed.
And now, barely thirty-one, Taylor could reap the benefits of their investment and her own hard work. She was an account representative for a Fortune 500 company, fast-tracked for a management role, and a star that seemed to be rising in step with her trajectory.
"There was never any question what I would do after college," she said. "It wasn't a decision so much as an assumption. I'm not sure I ever really thought about it, certainly not to the extent of considering alternatives. Dad had made a good career in business and mom had sacrificed some of her own interests to support that. I was smart and always pretty much the 'good kid' who enjoyed pleasing them, and that was that."
But Taylor wasn't in my office to tell me how well things were going. The bureaucracy and politics of a large corporation were starting to get her down, and the brutal travel schedule was taking its toll. "Mom says all I need is a 'fella,' but I don't think I'm capable of making anybody else happy right now, until I'm a lot happier myself."
And what would that take? "I don't know. I feel ... strangely divided. It's like there's this part of me that really enjoys the work and camaraderie and travel and absolute thrill of nailing a deal; and I feel lucky to be making the kind of money I make at my age. But the bloom's coming off the rose. There's this other part of me that misses having the time to dig in the flower garden—misses not having a flower garden—and wonders, How much longer can I do this? I'm scared that at this pace I'll never have the life and family I've always wanted, but I'm terrified of what I'll lose if I leave.
"And besides all that, what will my parents think?"
"Inertia" seems like a dirty word, doesn't it? We associate it with all things sluggish, stuck, lazy. We forget that its meaning encompasses not only the tendency of inert objects to remain at rest but the way matter keeps moving in the same straight line until acted upon by some external force. Such was the trajectory of Taylor Gattis's path, as it is with most people in their twenties and early thirties. Spurred by both a burning desire to succeed and a yawning fear of failure, they attack novice adulthood with a zeal and physical vigor that will rarely be replicated in their lives. Onward and ever upward!
There is indeed much to be done: establishing oneself at work, sifting through love relationships, building a physical space apart from previous family and community, finding a circle of trusted friends. "Hire me, marry me, trust me," he or she might be heard to say, "and then let me prove myself worthy." Promotions, credentials, recognition, self-confidence, and a sense of "making it" in the world become vitally important, followed closely by the sense of identity that comes from establishing a new nuclear family, becoming embedded in a community of friends and colleagues, and having one's own "lifestyle."
And all of these efforts are vital parts of the "project" of establishing a foothold in the world. If we were to relate it to the old myths and stories of our culture, we would talk about this time of life as being an initiation, or rite of passage, from the insular world of our youth to the independence and concomitant responsibilities of adulthood. In one way or another, each of us "goes off to the wars" and are forced into forms of self-reliance that most of us (fortunately) did not have to know before.
The forward inertia of the young adult provides the sheer will and energy to complete the task of establishing one's place in the world. This is no mean accomplishment, and society itself would cease to flourish if this were not the natural flow of life. But just as the summer solstice begins the shortened days of the winter to come, that forward energy contains within it the very factors that will eventually slow or bring it to a grinding halt. These are the factors—as much a part of life's flow as the trajectory itself—that may shake the foundations of the project to which you have devoted yourself so earnestly.
Consider Taylor Gattis. She may have achieved more than most in her thirty-one years, but like everyone else she entered novice adulthood with a set of values, expectations, and assumptions that were imported from an earlier time and place. And she, like practically all other young adults, was as unaware of the borrowed nature of those assumptions as a fish is aware that it swims in water. "I'm not sure I ever really thought about it," said she.
"No one can take the step into life without making certain assumptions," Jung observed, "and occasionally those assumptions are false—that is, they do not fit the conditions into which one is thrown." This is the stuff of the first foundational shift. It may begin with a nagging feeling of discontent, a dissonance between what is experiencing in day to day life and some "little voice within" that keeps implying that all is not as well as you had assumed it would be. There's a mismatch, though one is hard-pressed to put words to what is mismatched.
Here's how writer and educator Parker Palmer described what that feeling was like for him:
I was in my early thirties when I began, literally, to wake up to questions about my vocation. By all appearances, things were going well, but the soul does not put much stock in appearances. Seeking a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it is indeed possible to live a life other than one's own. Fearful that I was doing just that—but uncertain about the deeper, truer life I sensed hidden inside me, uncertain whether it was real or trustworthy or within reach—I would snap awake in the middle of the night and stare for long hours at the ceiling.
With a bit of good fortune we can at least arrive at the place Parker Palmer (and eventually Taylor Gattis) did. We can realize that our lives so far have been based on certain assumptions, and we can evaluate whether those assumptions are serving us well. We can realize that part of what's been driving our bus are the accumulated expectations of family members, teachers, friends, significant others—and, of course, ourselves—and take a studied look at where the bus is now headed. And we can hold up to the light our inherited values and see if they are truly golden or merely glisten.
Writing three decades after the experiences recounted above, Palmer had this advice: "Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent." In short, come into your own.
While the movements that take place in a person's heart and mind are not always overtly visible even to family and friends, experience tells us the first great foundational shift takes one of three recognizable forms.
The first is the experience of those fortunate (?) few whose inherited expectations, values, and assumptions are a relative match for "the conditions into which one is thrown." Their transition from the educational and family systems to novice adulthood is relatively smooth, without overt disruption or a need for fundamental reevaluation and change.
But there is great danger in thinking that statement applies to you. First, Levinson's research is clear that this happy situation applies to a distinct minority of young adults. Remember, it is as difficult as it is courageous to objectively examine your own assumptions and expectations to determine if they are truly owned or merely borrowed. One loses a piece of their potentiality—a chunk of their future—by concluding without honest reflection that their assumptions about life are spot-on. Still, we all know people for whom the twenties and thirties seem to be an effortless transition.
The trouble is, this minority closely resembles from the outside a far larger group who are in active and open resistance to anything that would threaten to interrupt their forward inertia, or have found the shut-off switch for that irritating "little voice within." There's just too much at stake—simply too much to lose—to warrant an examination of one's life and direction. It is far easier to dismiss those inner rumblings as "just a phase" or as some sort of mental indigestion which given time and a couple of pills (or drinks) will dissipate.
As the poet T. S. Eliot characterizes it, "Distracted from distraction by distraction/Filled with fancies and empty of meaning," this second common way of dealing with life's fundamental shift is hard to spot because we wish to keep it a secret even from ourselves. We use the zeal and energy which powered the project in the first place to extend it uninterrupted into the indefinite future.
And the drivers behind this strategy for dealing with life are understandably self-protective. As Levinson sympathetically observed, "Every genuine reappraisal must be agonizing, because it challenges the illusions and vested interests upon which the existing structure is based. The life structure of the thirties was initiated and stabilized by powerful forces in the person and his environment. These forces continue to make their claim for preserving the status quo."
But as we will see, it is those who resist dealing with the first foundational shift at all that have the greatest difficulties with the second—the one we call midlife.
There is a third path. Not surprisingly, since life seems to be structured this way, that path is both the most conscious and the most uncomfortable. The author Pearl S. Buck put it nicely: "It is no simple matter to pause in the midst of one's maturity, when life is full of function, to examine what are the principles which control that functioning." And yet, as Oliver Wendell Holmes asserted, "To have doubted one's own first principles is the mark of a civilized man."
Sometimes, as was the case with Taylor Gattis, we pause and engage in conscious self-reflection because the inner dissonance becomes so loud that we can hardly do otherwise. Such people, in Jung's words, become unable to "content themselves with inadequate or wrong reasons to the questions of life." Often instead it comes as the result of some precipitating event—a failed relationship, problems at work, an accident or illness—that becomes the external force that knocks us off our straight line trajectory.
Such was the case with a client I'll call Charles. Armed with an undergraduate degree in criminal justice and a diploma from a good law school, he embarked upon his chosen profession as an associate in a large law firm. He had taken this position with his eyes wide open—he knew there would be one sharp learning curve after another, that it would take sixty to seventy hours a week to meet the firm's expectations for billable hours, and that it would be six to seven years at a minimum before he would be offered partnership in the firm.
But when the time finally came for Charles to be considered for the brass ring of partnership, he was told that primarily as a result of a misstep in handling a client matter earlier in his career, a decision on his candidacy had been deferred for at least another year. Having put all his emotional eggs into this one basket, Charles was understandably deflated and depressed. To make matters worse, in pursuit of the partnership prize he had neglected a long-term romantic relationship that now seemed to be hanging by a thread, and a long-postponed physical revealed a form of hypertension related to stress.
Seemingly not able to summon his signature resilience to just "plow through" his current situation, Charles took a step back. He began to think about—and put words around—the reasons he'd gone to law school in the first place. He reflected back on the courses that had enlivened him as an undergraduate and why he had chosen criminal justice as a major. "As corny as this sounds, I've always been fascinated by our judicial system, warts and all, and wanted to be a part of it. I saw myself as Elliot Stabler [of TV's Law and Order] or a modern-day Eliot Ness, laying myself out there to make small dents in big societal problems."
So what happened? "Law school and firm practice were just sitting there as obvious choices. I mean, my parents were supportive, many of my classmates considered it a logical next step—and then I knocked the top off the LSATs and that was that. Look, I wouldn't give anything for what I learned practicing law, and I wouldn't begrudge anyone else that life, but I went into it assuming it would be something it could never be for me. If I'd stayed, it would have wrecked my life."
His life—not the one chosen by circumstance or convenience or family or classmates—but the one he wished to claim as his own. So after dealing with his disappointment and giving himself permission to step back and examine his career choice, Charles devised a long-term exit strategy that would allow him to keep his well-compensated position while exploring other options. Through an old college professor, Charles landed an interview with the FBI, which was interested in a person with his background and skills. He and his girlfriend openly discussed the pros and cons of such a dramatic move—certainly less money but more reasonable hours, more personal satisfaction, and more interesting travel. As he brought her more into the decision process, the relationship between them deepened.
As so often happens in the midst of such reexaminations, Charles began to feel a pull back toward the religious convictions of his youth and began to reread scriptural passages that had been important in his formative years. "I hadn't been to church, outside of the occasional wedding, since high school. But the passages that really spoke to me had to do with service and justice and sacrifice for a higher good. I'm no religious nut—or a political one—but it's interesting how the values that stuck with me as a kid made full circle and came back to me as a grown man."
Charles was indeed offered partnership by the firm one year after his initial rebuff. He turned it down and instead accepted a position with significant responsibilities in an FBI regional office—and got married to boot. During this decisive year, he also found for himself a spiritual community that helped affirm the values that had come to greater prominence in his life and had served as a basis for his career move.
Charles sums it up this way: "I feel like, in a way, I flew blind through college and law school and right into my first job. In hindsight, not making partner on my predetermined timeline was the best thing that could have happened to me. I had to take a hard look at who I really was and what I really wanted. And again, I know this sounds corny, but there's just always been this persistent dream of contributing to society by being part of the best criminal justice system the world has yet devised. I liked saying I was a lawyer because it had a certain social status attached to it. I like saying I'm with the Federal Bureau of Investigation because it speaks more of who I really am."
With "Charlotte," the changes wrought by the first foundational shift took place somewhat later chronologically and were less obvious to the beholder, but they were no less transformational to her life. Charlotte always described herself, with more pride than apology, as being "from the other side of the tracks." And she did what most young women in her community did upon graduating from high school—got married and promptly had children. But Charlotte knew she was bright enough to continue her education, and with the encouragement of a devoted mother (who was also an excellent babysitter), she set her sights on two distinct goals: a college degree in accounting and a job with a "big four" accounting firm.
Excerpted from When Your Foundations Move by C. Michael Thompson. Copyright © 2013 C. Michael Thompson. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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