This Wasn’t on the Program

“I haven’t heard anyone say anything bad about him. He’s never caused any trouble.”

That’s essentially the comment I remember reading from one of my classmates in the closing days of high school. Graduation was looming, and people were going around saying their I’ll-miss-yous and this-isn’t-goodbyes (and, in some cases and in hushed tones, good-riddances). In our class, one of our closing exercises was to write whatever you could say about your classmates and give it to them on a strip of paper. I forgot how exactly, but we did it in a way where the person will not know who wrote the comments about him. Lots were involved.

I struggled to think of things to say. I was never one to mingle or mix, electing instead to stick to my primary role of studying;  looking back, I’d probably describe myself as a ghost, following rules and staying out of people’s way just so they’d stay out of mine. It was the courtesy of giving space, the practicality of avoiding friction.

I don’t remember what I wrote about others (though I know I didn’t think or say anything bad about anyone). I don’t even remember what people said about me, exactly. But that one sticks out.

At the time, I was proud of that.

***

“You can’t live your life in the baby seat,” the Barenaked Ladies sang from the radio as I drove around campus (slowly, because I was a newbie driver), collecting the various signatures that I need to get cleared. It was time to graduate again–this time, from college. Earning my degree had been a challenge, sure, but it had not felt like an ordeal, exactly. It was just another item to check off on my what-you’re-supposed-to-do-in-life list.

Was I happy about it? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I was staying with the program. Keep your head low; nose to the grindstone, eyes on the books; keep your GPA up; don’t let others down; don’t rock the boat; don’t push other people; don’t invade others’ space; keep your elbows in, and don’t shove as you walk through the crowd.

I drove back to Albert Hall, where I got the last set of signatures I needed. All the blanks were filled.

Mission accomplished.

***

While complying can be an effective strategy for physical survival, it’s a lousy one for personal fulfillment. Living a satisfying life requires more than simply meeting the demands of those in control. Yet in our offices and in our classrooms we have way too much compliance and way too little engagement. The former might get you through the day, but only the latter will get you through the night.

I read that passage from Dan Pink’s book Drive, and it hits me like a liver blow. Three decades in, and I still haven’t found what I’m looking for–mainly because I haven’t thought about what it should be yet.

Around me, I see people getting married, building careers, making names for themselves, nurturing connections.

“I noticed tonight that the world has been turning while I’ve been stuck here dithering around,” the frontman of Keane croons through the speaker of my smartphone.

Dreams, it turns out, are not distractions. They are not beside the point. They are, in fact, the point.

***

So to you, whoever you think you are–brother, sister, friend, lover–I say: learn the lesson I did not. Don’t build your life around the convenience of compliance and avoiding offense. Wander a bit, determine your passion, and don’t waste your opportunity to pursue it…

…because “I haven’t heard anyone say anything bad about him” makes for a poor eulogy.

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