When I celebrated my 30th birthday, I had my first existential crisis. By all outward appearances, I’d made it: I’d been working at Google for 4 years. And yet, I wrote in my journal that while I loved Google, I wasn’t fulfilled. I questioned how I could find my “true calling” – the thing I was passionate about and excited to do each day.
In the same entry, though, I immediately dismissed my fantasies because it would mean sacrificing my lifestyle.
I’d only been married a few years, had just bought a house in the suburbs, and was planning on having kids soon so I shoved those questions into the back corner of the closet in my mind and went on living my life, doing my work and feeling ok.
Over the years, despite my best attempts to ignore it, that feeling of unease persisted. I liked what I was doing, but it didn’t feel right. On the other hand, I felt a heck of a lot more uneasy trying to think of doing anything else that wouldn’t require huge lifestyle sacrifices, so again I shoved that vague questioning back in that mental closet.
Once in a while, I’d get this errant vision. One day, after my 1 ½ hour commute home from the office, I was sitting at a stoplight and got this intense vision of myself, standing on a stage, talking to and inspiring thousands of people. I was immediately flooded with this feeling of calm and excitement at the same time.
I did a lot of speaking and training in my job, but this felt different – it was almost as if I was seeing an alternate version of my life.
I was still relishing that vision and feeling as I drove into my neighborhood. And then, when I walked into my beautiful, suburban house and saw my young baby, the bubble burst: I couldn’t risk all this.
After all, I liked my job, and I loved the lifestyle it afforded me. I was the breadwinner, had a mortgage and a lot of bills, and a growing family. I needed to be responsible.
Surely, if I just kept working and climbing and progressing in the career I’d chosen, things would eventually start to feel right.
Existential crisis #2 came a few years later – and this one hit me like a ton of bricks. Three days after I turned 33, my second daughter, who was only 3 months old, had spinal neurosurgery. It was one of the hardest days of my life but it brought into focus the realiization that I was waiting for my life to start. I had a thought in that moment that changed my entire trajectory from that point forward: I have one life to live and no second chances.
The only way to start actually feeling good in my life was to stop waiting and start figuring out what “right” meant for me. Not because of how it looked on the outside, but because of how it felt on the inside.
The next several years, I did a lot of inner work that led to big realizations and necessary changes in my life. Finally, my life started feeling really right and like I was living aligned to who I really was.
Except for my work.
That nagging, uneasy feeling I’d had for years just wouldn’t go away. I kept trying to quiet it by exploring new roles, learning new skills, taking on new projects. I even volunteered to teach and train small businesses hoping that would get me closer to fulfilling that vision I’d had of speaking and inspiring people.
I didn’t want to even entertain the possibility that my career path wasn’t going to ever feel right.
I was great at my job, I loved my company and the friends I had, the security, the expertise – all of it. I didn’t want to look there because – what if I realized I wasn’t in the right place? What then? What would I do?
What if I discovered that I didn’t fit in my life?
If I didn’t fit here, in the only life I’ve ever known – in the place I really liked – where in the world would I fit? And what if I discover I don’t fit anywhere? Then what?
It was like I was standing at the door of the mental closet where I’d been shoving all of those big questions for years and I was afraid that if I opened the closet door, everything was going to spill out all over me and bury me. The idea of changing my entire life because of asking one simple question felt overwhelming and not at all worth it.
No thanks. I’m ok. My life is not that bad.
Why risk it all when I could just sit back and enjoy the perks of my comfortable, pleasant life? After all, it could be so much worse.
But the longer I sat with it, avoiding opening that door, the more the comfortable became uncomfortable.
I started to realize I could see down the path I was on, see exactly what was going to happen: more of the same. Sure, maybe there’d be a few solid highs from a promotion or a big win but then it would be back to the same pleasant life.
And, because of everything I’d already gone through to live a life that was more aligned to who I am, the idea of staying in a pleasant situation that was never really going to feel like me became almost physically painful. Literally: my neck was always going out, my stomach bothered me all the time, I started having trouble sleeping.
I don’t want to look back on my life and think “that wasn’t so bad”. I want to look back on my life and know, deeply, that I made the most of my time here – that I lived into my full range and made the greatest impact for the greatest good.
The problem was that my path – the only one I’d ever known – felt so narrow at the time. To even consider taking steps to expand my range was scary – it meant coming face to face with a lot of bad possibilities I’d been shielding myself from and avoiding like the plague all my life: failure, mediocrity, looking dumb, not having the answers, not having it all together, not being in control.
I’d always been the over-achieving, perfectionist, bubbly cheerleader – the one who could do it all and do it with a smile.
What if I couldn’t do that when I took steps off the path? What if I couldn’t maintain that persona? Then who would I be?
Existential crisis #3 was the day I realized I couldn’t avoid it anymore and finally – finally – I allowed the question to come: does my career path actually feel right? Is this going to get me to where I want to be in life?
I knew the answer.
When I actually cracked opened that door to the mental closet where I’d been stuffing my fear and dreams, I realized I started to feel better – not worse. I’d been so scared I’d get buried under the overwhelm of realizing I didn’t fit in my life, but instead, I finally felt like I could breathe.
Until I faced it, I hadn’t realized how much avoiding this fear was draining my energy with all the denial and distractions I’d created to avoid it.
By getting honest with myself and being willing to face the thing that scared me, I could actually start to do something about it – and that felt empowering, not overwhelming.
Not long after, those visions I’d had throughout the years of teaching and inspiring people started coming back and, while I still had no idea what it would turn into, I stopped shoving them in the mental closet.
Instead, I sat with them. I let them see the light of day where they could grow and bloom. And eventually, those visions turned into a dream. My dream.
It still took a long time for me to figure out what I really wanted, but once I dreamed that dream enough times, it started to feel real – and eventually it became the thing I couldn’t not go do.
Of course I had a lot of fear – I mean, I was leaving a well-worn path with lots of cheerleaders, certainty and security. I had to do a lot of planning and build up a lot of courage and confidence. But what I finally realized was that it wasn’t my path that had made me successful; it was me.
I got to where I was because of my drive, energy, motivation, excitement and hard work – all for doing a job that I really liked, but never truly loved.
I started to imagine what could happen if I took all of it – the drive, hard work, motivation, energy – fueled it with passion and then funnelled into the thing I couldn’t not go do.
I realized: if I could be successful once, I could do it again – and this time, it would feel right.
I knew my journey would include facing a lot of fear and uncertainty – all the best adventures usually do – but I started by dreaming big first and planning baby steps second because I really do have faith that anything I can dream, I can do.
Here I am, 10 years later and nearing my 40th birthday. I’ve had 3 existential crises, 2 kids, 1 divorce and 1 massive career pivot – and thanks to what all of it taught me, my life has never felt so right.