Thursday, December 26, 2013

My new year's resolution: Listen to the mirror

(Note: I first published this as a "note" on my Facebook page in late 2011. Somehow, it never made it to my blog - and two years later it still rings as true as ever. Enjoy!)

This is the time when people start thinking about their resolutions for the coming year. They decide to do things like lose weight (always a good one in my case), save more money, or be nicer to people.

Here's mine: I am going to spend more time in front of the mirror.

No, this isn't about my looks (especially at my age :). Standing in front of the mirror actually has a much more personal and spiritual meaning for me. Allow me to explain:

Many years ago, when I was 28 years old, I stood in front of my mirror one day and said to myself, "OK, Rich. Right now you're an overworked software engineer in suburban Los Angeles. But what do you really, really want to be in another 28 years?" I was surprised at the answer that popped out, almost without thinking. "I want to write, teach, and work with people."

This answer bothered me. I had spent all this time earning an engineering degree, like everyone else in my family, and my career was humming along nicely. And, I quickly reminded myself, how many people get to program supercomputers, create computer graphics, and have lunch in Newport Beach whenever they want? So I pushed this thought back into the "pipe dream" corner of my mind and went back to shaving.

A few years later, now living in New England, I was still restless, changing jobs, and not what I would call particularly happy. So I asked myself the same question. This time the answer was a little more detailed, but it didn't bother me any less. "I would really like to be one of those author-speaker-psychotherapist types that I see on television. Not that I want to be famous. I don't, really. But I bet I would have a lot of fun, and help others in the process."

Once again, I quickly summoned the forces of reality: Don't be ridiculous. You have a wife, a car payment, and a mortgage. You have reached the leadership level of your profession. You serve on government advisory committees, and chair conference sessions. Everyone will think you are nuts if you ditch all of this and "follow your bliss." So forget about it already.

Except this time, I didn't forget about it. I started brainstorming about what life could look like, even if I still wasn't quite sure how to make it happen. I thought of all things that excited me when I was younger: writing and acting in my fourth-grade play; wanting to become a Catholic priest and help people when I grew up; my inexplicable dual major of psychology in engineering school. And it struck me that somewhere along the way I had traded all of it for someone else's idea of success.

Soon, after another job change and a move to Pittsburgh, I started consciously shifting gears away from my technological world. I read about Carl Rogers and spirituality. I started writing seriously, sketching out book projects, and even getting published. And then when rumors started to swirl about layoffs at my large company, I did the unthinkable – I went to my management and said, "Me, me, please pick me!" and left with a modest consulting retainer.

So here I was at age 40, moving back to my native Ithaca and starting my life completely over as a freelance technical writer. And you know what? It felt surprisingly good. Instead of fear, there was a delicious sense that life went on, there were always doors to knock on and temp agencies to work for, and that I was still waking up with a beautiful woman every morning. And ironically, as I slowly started building a platform as a writer, a speaker, and later a therapist, the biggest surprise of all started to dawn on me – I was much more successful than I ever was as an engineer.

Recently it struck me: nowadays, in my 60th year, I am finally living the life I described in the mirror to myself at age 28, more than half my life ago. And if I had simply done a better job of listening to myself back then – or for that matter, in fourth grade – I probably would have been living this life a very long time ago. But better late than never. I frankly felt old back then, and feel much younger now. And I still have a lot more to learn.

God speaks to people in many ways, and in my case He sometimes uses a mirror. So what is your mirror telling you?

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