If I have one guiding principle in life (I have many, who am I kidding), it’s that life is about discovery. We have this one life, and it’s short or long depending on your perspective, but it is finite and the world offers so much variation, richness, and abundance. But how do you make it all fit? I want to look back on a life well-lived, and for me that means trying on all kinds of ideas and pursuits. It’s okay to try on, try out, try. Just try!
Say Yes to Your Curiosity
Think about a time when you’ve enjoyed a meandering conversation with someone only to be startled by a new idea that makes you shout “Yes!” Think about a time when something shiny, colorful, luscious, intriguing, or otherwise mentally sparkling caught you by the corner of the eye and made you wonder. Think about the endless times that a new idea or a vaguely recalled idea made your brow furrow and you brought up a new search bar to engage with it and build understanding. These are all events in which your curiosity has been alerted to a thread. Where could it lead? Will you say “Yes” to following that thread? This is how you build your life’s pursuits, or maybe just build some trivia knowledge. You won’t know the significance of these bits of life until you say yes. Say yes to your ideas.
The most important parts of your life are when you have made decisions. Yes, I will do this. No, that’s not for me. You make decisions everyday. Many are mundane. Some are critical junctures that will influence your path for the rest of your life. Most of the time, you won’t know the difference at the time. You might never connect particular choices to the trajectory of your life. Though I challenge you to look back and evaluate when you have made critical choices. You might just learn how to change your approach to life to realize your dreams.
What does it mean to Try on Ideas?
When your interest has been piqued and you turn your attention upon it, you are beginning to try on the idea. When you research, discuss, take actions, or invest in a pursuit, you are trying on the idea. Why am I framing this as “trying on” and not simply deciding to do something? To reassure you. To take the pressure off. To remove fear. Because of what may or may not happen later. It’s easier to try something on, without commitment, than to fully commit to something. For life. However, there are a lot of expectations and judgment that come with the things you do; even very simple, non-critical things.
Here’s an example. I spent several years gardening (2007-2015). I had flower gardens, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, berry bushes. I had terraced rose gardens, raised beds, annual borders, and perennial islands. I tried the whole gamut at one time or another. But I stopped. I got some joy from gardening. I loved most aspects of the pursuit, but overall, I couldn’t get on board with the garden’s schedule. It kept a schedule independent of mine and I wasn’t having it. I had a conflict with gardening that I couldn’t resolve and I got tired of being annoyed by my hobby. So I let it go. I tried it on and then, I stopped. Where am I going with this? Read on.
Judgment and the Trying on Ethos
I just painted my abandonment of gardening in pretty neutral terms: “stopped,” and “let go.” These are not the terms that generally come up when you discard an idea or pursuit. Usually, there are terms full of judgment and shame: “failure,” “giving up,” “quitting.” Why do I belabor this point? Because with the specter of these terms, many will never try things out in life, discover what they love, build their dreams, and ultimately, find joy. We wear these lenses of self-judgment and we’re often faced with the judgment of others. And we shrink away.
When I stopped gardening, my husband, who is otherwise lovingly supportive of my choices, offered judgment and criticism. He was surprised and annoyed that I stopped and expressed as much. I’m sure he was looking back on the labor he put into building the raised beds, but I could have taken the criticism to heart and felt shame. It was then that I began building my theory of “trying on ideas.” I acknowledged his contributions with gratitude (probably, at least that’s how I want to remember it), and rejected his judgment. “I don’t have to commit to something forever. There will be a lot of things in life that I try and won’t work for me. So what? Why would I keep doing something that doesn’t make me happy, especially when the stakes are so low? I haven’t failed, or given up. I’ve moved on.”
I’ve discussed this with a friend as she was knitting and she helped me think about this more. She suggested that the judgment can come from within, as well. She explained that she loves starting knitting projects, but rarely finishes them. She said she has judged herself for these “failures” and wondered if she was “bad at knitting.” We both knew that wasn’t true, as she sat knitting a beautiful lace cowl with fine yarn. As someone who has given up both knitting and crocheting, I can confirm that there is a difference between being bad at something, and simply not enjoying it, though those two things can go hand in hand. My friend let go of that judgment of herself, and I hope you let go of those thoughts that build shame into your perspective. It’s okay to let something go, especially when it offers little to no joy.
Recognizing When the Stakes Are High
Like I said, so many choices are mundane, but many will shape your life in permanent ways. I want to offer perspective that will help you identify when the relaxed nature of trying on an idea or pursuit is not a fully appropriate attitude. Consider your relationships with people. You certainly can try on people in your life. Friends, lovers, bosses, employees, baristas, teachers, students. So many people will fill so many different roles in our lives, but recognize that the more you invest in a relationship with a person, the more you both have to lose if you decide to stop the relationship. Abandoning the most serious relationships in your life, while sometimes necessary, should be approached with care and consideration beyond the pressure-relieving “trying on” mentality. The stakes are higher when other people have invested in your path.
Don’t think I don’t see you there, in your painful but important relationships. I’ve been there too. I’ve stopped relationships, but they don’t stop affecting me. I’m only saying relationships are not an area of your life in which to be glib.
Deciding to Stop
So you’ve tried on some idea or pursuit and it’s not a fit. Just stop. Take off that idea. Don’t torture yourself or others as you attempt to avoid judgment or your own sense of shame. Your joyless, painful life will not improve the world. I’ve talked about low-stakes pursuits like gardening and knitting, but let’s ratchet it up a bit.
When I was wrapping up my undergraduate degree and began making the choices for next steps, I decided to try on law school. I studied law, had a specialty in mind, got an internship, passed the bar. And I didn’t practice law. Ever. As I searched for job in a time when legal jobs were scarce and salaries were depressed, I realized that I didn’t love the law like my colleagues did. I realized I didn’t want to shape the lives of others in that sphere. I decided that, while I had loved law school and the people I met there, the practice of law was not a fit for me. I realize now that I grew considerably in my twenties and discovered the motivations that had been driving me were not steering a course to a life I wanted. My values changed. So, I stopped. I took off my law hat.
When I said yes to law school, I began the process of trying on a legal career. I heavily invested in that path. While I still have to pay for that investment (student loans, I’m talking about student loans), I am allowed to make other choices. To abandon that pursuit. To let it go. I could get caught up in regret and painful self-judgment, but what would that do for me? I could feel shame when others ask me about my law practice and I tell them I bailed on that. None of that would serve me. And really, who wants a lawyer who doesn’t want to be a lawyer? No one. This is true of most things.
Say yes to your ideas and try them on. Be a “Yes Man.” Have a “Year of Yes.” Those are affiliate links because I’m not the first to explore this topic and you can be thoroughly entertained and enlightened on the subject if you want to dive deeper. But remember, when you stare down a path you’ve chosen in life and come to the desolate realization that it’s not taking you where you want to go, stop. It might be hard to change directions. You will continue paying for that old path. You might feel lingering pain as you make a change. Take heart and try on a new pursuit that takes you closer to your dreams.