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Two Essential Lessons About Finding Purpose and Belonging

Some of the decisions I made in college turned out to be mistakes -- the first of many over 30+ years. Here’s what I finally learned.

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Woman looking out a window
Alpgiray Kelem via Canva

In 5th grade I found myself in charge of props for our school musical, Annie Get Your Gun. From then on, I was in love with the theater’s backstage. I became a stage manager in high school and went to college as a theater major. I aspired to someday be a Broadway producer. I had passion and purpose. And then, I didn’t.

Mistakes

During my freshman year, I was immediately immersed in the theater world. I couldn’t have been more excited to be able to devote myself to my chosen field. I lived in a performing arts dorm. I became the youngest-ever stage manager of one of the year’s big musicals.  My friends were all theater majors. The school had a significant “Greek” community and I did pledge a sorority but soon “de-pledged” because the activities interfered with rehearsals so I couldn’t be bothered. That was my first mistake. It turns out I went on to repeat this same kind of error many times since.

At my university, theater majors were required to take acting classes. Serious acting classes. This terrified me; I’ve never even liked dressing up for Halloween. The thought that one day soon in class I’d have to play Medea (the main character in an ancient Greek tragedy) was simply too much. So midway through my sophomore year, I dropped the major. It turned out that I dropped a lot more than just a field of study.

I suddenly found myself on the outside. Because I wasn’t working on a show, I had no reason to be spending lots of time bonding with my formerly fellow students. And because I had been consumed with interest in theater since 5th grade, I didn’t yet know what I did want to do. I was lost. And for reasons I could not explain, I chose not to commit to anything at all, lest I miss something better that would come along. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t dropped out of the sorority, as that would have offered me an alternate source of friends and connections.

While I did settle into a new academic major that I really liked, I never did find my place socially. 30+ years later I have a recurring dream where I am back at my college to take graduate classes. I’m so excited about the opportunity for a re-set. Until I realize, what am I doing here? I have a husband and kids in another city. I need to be there to drive carpool. And I wake up stressed, wondering whether it was real.

Belonging

Last year I listened to Brene Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness, about the quest for true belonging. Then a short time later I saw the Broadway show, Dear Evan Hansen. These stories resonated with me so deeply. And the words to the song “Waving Through a Window” seemed to so perfectly express what I have often felt over the years since I changed my college major — “on the outside always looking in.” 

Although I now own a company, have a wonderful husband and two amazing kids, I am still, to a large degree, not fully living the life I’d imagined. A life where I truly belong, with a circle of friends I don’t have to schedule to see, whose kids have grown up together, whose families go on vacation together, and who experience the passage of life’s ups and downs together. The interaction is just assumed. It’s mutual. Nobody feels like, “am I being stalky by wanting to make plans again?”

Choices

But it seems, I’ve always been working. And moving. And looking at it in retrospect, making choices that made me comfortable, but not ones that would make me happy and connected.

I’ve made close friends through jobs, but we all live in different cities. I got married late, had kids late, and went right back to work. I don’t regret all of that. However, I didn’t make those lifelong friends in the mommy and me class; I was never the class mom; My kids didn’t choose to play organized sports so there weren’t endless weekends spent getting to know people courtside or next to the soccer field. We are now part of an observant Jewish community, where the synagogue is at the center of social life. But I’m not observant, my husband is. So I haven’t been moved to engage the way he and others in the community have. 

My closest relationships from the last 10 years are professional. But none of those people live where I do. So I wonder — If I were to retire, would that be just like dropping my major in college? Would I be lost yet again?

Lessons

During the pandemic, I have taken to walking. A lot. And I’ve done a lot of thinking about what I’m happy about and what I’d like to change in my life. Here are two conclusions I’d share, and that I’m working to live by during my next chapter:

Go for it. Don’t close yourself off to opportunities, especially if they make you a bit uncomfortable. You never know where something might lead you, and this is what makes life interesting. As the saying goes, you get out what you put in. If you only put in the minimum, you will surely minimize the richness of your experience.

Seek out ways to connect with people in meaningful ways, even if you don’t think you have time. It’s never too late, and if you look at the big picture, you’ll see it’s more important than whatever you thought was the priority.

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