If I were ever asked to address a graduating class, I’d look all those starry-eyed, career-bound capitalists in their shining faces and say, “Never get good at doing what you hate. If you do, you will be asked to do more of it. And for more money. It’s a trap. Run away as fast as you can. In fact, if you are forced to do what you hate, do it very badly. So badly they fire you for it. There is no shame in that. It may be the only way for you to find what you truly love. And when you do find what you love, do it, even if you are bad at it. There is not shame in that either. Only joy.”
I’d be pilloried by the administration and tuition-soaked parents alike. But it’s the truth.
I came to writing late. Growing up as a an excruciatingly shy kid in Mississippi, not liking sports nor girls nor killing small animals, I was sufficiently suspect without adding “and he likes to write” to the bill of indictments. So early on, I decided that I would be successful and make enough money to buy and sell them all on the courthouse square. And it worked.
Until it didn’t.
At 45 I had done life the way I figured a man was supposed to. I was a running my own company, consulting with Fortune 500 executives. I had the big house, a handsome partner, the Range Rover, and the requisite English springer with pedigree. We looked fabulous together on our Christmas cards. The only downside was that I wanted to kill myself. I was halfway through my life and the only surprise left was how much more I could accumulate of the things that weren’t making me happy now.
I went to a therapist.
“I don’t get it,” I told him. “I’ve got it all. Everything they said I should want. And I want to die.”
He reminded me that I hated what I did for a living.
“What does that have to do with it?” I asked. The only career advice my successful father had given me was, “Son, if you find a job you only hate 95% of, you’ve got a damned good job.”
The therapist went on. “My guess is you made a promise to yourself when you were a kid and it wasn’t to grow up and be a businessman like your dad.”
“Well, how do I find the answer?” I asked.
“Only one way I know of. You’re not going to like it. You’ve got to start saying ‘no’ to the things that hurt. It’s the only way you’ll be able to hear the ‘yes’s’.”
Once I looked, I realized everything in my life hurt. It all reeked of obligation, resentment and compromise. I didn’t have a life. I had a cover story. I resented my corporate clients for paying me a fortune for making them more successful at doing those things I didn’t value in the first place. The house was never grand enough, the lawn landscaped enough. Even taking care of the dog hurt. When you’re depressed everything feels obligatory.
I decided this was too important for half-measures. I put the house up for sale, broke up with my partner, shut down my business and gave away the dog. I moved into a two-room apartment.
Then something phenomenal happened. The more “stuff” I let go of, the lighter I felt. Instead of dread, I felt joy when I awoke mornings.
That therapist was good! I returned.
“Now what?” I asked, excited to hear what he advised next.
“Travel,” he said. “You can afford to go anywhere and stay as long as you like.”
I told him I had always wanted to go to London. Ireland. Trace my family roots. I’d take a friend with me.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “Go someplace you don’t speak the language. And go alone. Don’t even take a guide book.”
“No way!” I blurted. “Why would I do that?”
Then he gave it to me with both barrels.
“It’ll force you to rely on others. You’ve spent your life controlling and manipulating and impressing others. That way you don’t have to depend upon them. You believe being a man is never asking for help. Jon, you haven’t been living a life. You’ve been living a series of 5-year strategic plans. You’ve carefully eliminated spontaneity and the unknown. Without the unknown, there is no delight. A lot of life is about getting lost. Loose your way. Be surprised. Be quiet and listen for your own voice. It’s still there, I promise.”
I went to Costa Rica, speaking not even poco of Spanish, and spent three months traipsing the jungles. I got lost a lot, but help was generously supplied. The world became quiet. I could hear myself again.
I felt a joy I hadn’t experienced since I was five. I woke one morning remembering an event from long ago.
It was before I began school and my father and I were out driving. As always, when he approached the railroad tracks near our home, he pulled the car to a complete stop, even though no train was in sight. We were sitting alone out in the middle of the country.
I asked him, “Daddy, why’d we stop?”
He nodded at a big white sign with black writing. “Cause it tells me to.”
“Who told you to?” I didn’t hear anybody tell my daddy to do anything. “What’d it say?”
“See?” he pointed. “It says ‘Mississippi Law Stop.’”
Those were the first three words I learned to read. And they held magic. Not because they told my father what to. But because he did it. Nobody told my dad what to do.
I mean nobody.
These strange markings called words held some power over my father. I was impressed. It had to be God speaking through those letters.
I wanted to own the power for myself. That’s when I fell in love with the power of words.
I came back from the jungle and I’ve been a writer ever since. At first a bad one. And then a not-so-bad one. Then a readable one. Eventually a published one.
I’d never stuck with anything that I was bad at. Writing is the first. Maybe because when I began, I didn’t care if I was good or bad. I just loved who I was when I was doing it.
I’ve heard that the first part of life is about mastery. About getting it right. The second is about meaning, about doing it for the right reasons. So a lot of the second part is unlearning the first part. I think that’s about right.
It may have taken 45 years, but I finally unlearned enough to live my childhood dream.
Jonathan Odell is author of The Healing and Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League. He now lives in Minneapolis where he is at work on a memoir.