“What do you put on first in the morning, pants or socks?” Gum Gang, a Korean shaman I had worked with for years, shouted. I had spoken to Gum Gang for hours on end that day, trying to decide on school or work or following my own passions. I felt a problem all too common for young professionals, a fear that my next choices might doom my future.
Gum Gang lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair. “Well which is it, pants or socks?” the plump Korean man said.
“I come all this way for help and that’s your advice?” I spat back. “Whatever decisions I make here will affect me for my entire life. What if lacking a degree shuts me out of funding? What if leaving the professional world leaves me unemployable?”
Gum Gang leaned in with wide eyes and an impatient pout. “Pants. Or. Socks?” He said, his only movement being an ash of his cigarette.
My face flushed and I fumed. “Pants, socks, I don’t care which I put on first!” I shouted.
“Exactly” the shaman said with a satisfied grin. “Putting your pants or socks on first doesn’t matter, so long as you’re fully dressed in the end, correct?” I stared, dumfounded. “Life is the same. The future is the same. You will have to do many different things to make your dreams reality. Above all else, what do you want to give to the world?”
“I want to heal America” I said. “I want to lift people out of depression, I want us to stop treating each other as objects.”
“Do you think that’s easy?” Gum Gang asked. “That there’s a set path to do that? No one’s going to make it easy for you. Maybe you’ll do breakthrough research as an academic. Maybe you’ll start a business that brings human happiness. Maybe you’ll work as a politician, a freelancer, or a traveler. All of these things can help you reach your goals, to give what you want to give to the world. You just have to choose one.”
“But anything I do will change the way people see me” I responded. “You can’t just go off of a set path in America, if you don’t climb up at every step you fall behind, people look down on you.”
Gum Gang handed me a cigarette. “Is your goal in life to make others see you a certain way, or to do what you want to do? If getting a job and a career lets you do what you want, then do it. But if that were true, why would you come to me, why would you seek shamans?” I nodded, Gum Gang lit my cigarette. “Perhaps you work and save money now to pursue a project later. Perhaps you pursue a degree and use it to gain funding and influence. Perhaps you sit and reflect on your experiences. As long as it helps you reach your goals, it’s the right decision. You will need to reach many people, you will need to study, you will need to reflect. Just put your clothes on one step at a time, and before you know it, you’ll be fully dressed” Gum Gang said with a smile.
I carry Gum Gang’s advice with me every day. Since that time I’ve worked as a project manager, traveled to find other shamans, and recorded religious festivals for insearchofalaya.com. Sometimes the same fears well up, that I’m making a mistake and I’ve made the wrong decision. But for every viral success and failed prototype, I remember Gum Gang’s words. Shamans have inspired a medical lab software I’m building, and skills I gained as a project manager help me create meetings and events with shamans. Following an academic or professional track might have been satisfying, and backpacking non-stop might have been fun, but I would have never seen the world the way I do now. Each experience has become part of a whole and given me a perspective that no one can copy, and that’s been more valuable than any degree or promotion.
By accepting that life will be filled with strange, different experiences, I learned to focus on how it all synthesizes together, and how to use that to make a better world. I think Gum Gang’s anecdote is perfect advice for many young people today, wondering where they might end up, afraid to divert from the herd and follow their dreams. Gum Gang taught me that life can be tough, life can be uncertain, but pants first, socks first, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re fully dressed in the end.
Originally published at medium.com