The Terrible Mistake Most Twenty-Somethings Make
‘Living a life that’s not the same as the life that wants to live in you.’
In 1999, Parker J. Palmer wrote an autobiographical book filled with anecdotes from his own youth, in which he described the process of finding one’s passion.
Palmer himself went through the same struggle many twenty-somethings go through today.
As an aspiring “ad man” in the sixties, he experienced a “gap” between what he actually wanted to do and what he was spending his life on doing.
After chasing “the fast car and other large toys that seemed to be the accessories [of] selfhood,” Palmer found himself completely lost, he woke up one day to a chilling realization: the life he was living was not the same as the life that wanted to live in him.
If you want to draw a modern analogy, think of all the budding twenty-year-old entrepreneurs and startup founders who want to become the next GaryVee or Mark Zuckerberg, only to realize one day that entrepreneurship wasn’t really what they wanted to do all along. And that they were in it solely for the money.
Palmer's situation was aggravated by the fact that he didn’t really know what his vocation was. There was no clear alternative for him. In fact, he didn’t find that out until much later, when he was already in his fifties.
As he reflects on his “lost years” in the book, Palmer sees a terrible mistake many twenty-year-olds make.
Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.
Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.
In pursuing a vocation, we shouldn’t force it upon ourselves by coming up with grand ideas or copying somebody else’s life. Instead, we should be quiet and listen to what’s already inside.
As I read about Palmer’s ideas further, I thought to myself, “God, I wish I knew this earlier.”
When I first read about this concept on my favorite blog (Brainpickings), I immediately resonated with Palmer’s story. After all, that’s also how it was for me.
Throughout my teenage years, I thought of myself as an aspiring business-person, soon-to-become-a-millionaire-by-changing-the-world.
Part of it was youthful ego and arrogance. Still, part of it was a delusion caused by reading too much business non-fiction, listening to too many podcasts, and being born at a particular time in history.
Think about it. Every young man in our generation wants to be a startup founder, similarly to how every man in Palmer’s generation wanted to be a fancy “ad man” — like they show in Mad Men.
But I consider myself lucky.
I never achieved the crazy success. I never got to a point to say, “Oh my god, I’ve wasted twenty years of my life chasing a false dream.”
The truth is, as I started my (16? 25? 30?) ventures, almost nothing worked.
I remember talking with my father (also an entrepreneur) after my yet-another-failed-app, and I said, “I am learning.”
“How do you know?” he asked.
“Because I am failing a lot,” I replied. Then I added, “I never had a successful venture before.”
He stared at me and said, “that’s exactly what I am worried about.”
Somewhere in year four, I pulled the pin. I exited my video production business, stopped “trying to make it” or hustling, and started to live (and write).
Now I am learning to listen to myself better — but I am also frequently falling in the trap Palmer is talking about: using too much force and will to define my life and my calling.
Palmer writes that “the willful pursuit of vocation is an act of violence toward ourselves — violence in the name of a vision that, however lofty, is forced on the self from without rather than grown from within.”
Read that quote again. It’s a groundbreaking idea.
Young people are so caught up in themselves, worrying about the next thing, or how it ties to the image of themselves they’ve so carefully constructed. Many keep on living this way into adulthood.
What Palmer suggests is that we must abandon any images of altogether, “however lofty,” they might seem.
“Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening,” he writes.
The big question is, what is it that we should listen to? To ourselves, of course. And we can’t hear ourselves — our “soul” if you wish — until we let go of the ideas constructed by our brain.
Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear.
Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling the who I am.
I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live — but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.
We need to stop “thinking” and start “feeling” instead. And, of course, it’s easier said than done.
But I’ve got some field advice for you.
The way to start living the life that “wants to live inside you” is to reconnect with yourself.
Magic, psychology, and spirituality aside, the only way to do so is to “surrender” to yourself. Stop worrying about where you’re going and take it one step at a time.
When asked to advise a younger version of themselves, no wonder most older people say something along the lines of: “Take it as it comes. Keep doing what you’re doing and don’t worry.”
You accept yourself by starting with the most difficult: accepting your shortcomings, traits that you consider to be weaknesses. You can’t accept yourself fully by accepting only the “good” parts of yourself.
Then, once you’ve done that, do two things:
- Be quiet. That’s why being (or living) alone is so key in this process — it allows you to connect with yourself on a whole new level.
- Give up. Instead of thinking about where you should end up inside, listen to what’s already there. It’s very reassuring to know that no books or podcasts or articles will give you the answers. Reading should be for pleasure, not for understanding yourself — that content is within you already.
Finally, let me leave you with a concept of “soul” or the inner voice that I particularly like.
The soul is like a wild animal — tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.
If you have ever seen a fully-grown stallion, you know what he is talking about.
When you look at that animal, you see force, brutality, power. But you also see anxiety, empathy. A horse is ten times more emotional than the most emotional person you know. It’s a concoction of naked nerves.
The way to deal with your inner wild animal is to be very gentle.
Walk slowly. Talk in a whisper. Pay attention. Listen.
Then there’s a chance that you don’t repeat Palmer’s mistake. And, like Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, you will turn to your significant other and say, “I am exactly the person I was supposed to be.”