What I’ve learned from following my bliss (straight into the wall)

I Dream of Empty Chairs

I arrived home last night to a great surprise via Google alerts: Plan B Nation—described as “a smart blog by writer and lawyer Amy Gutman on ‘Iiving creatively in challenging times’”—had been dubbed Website of the Week on the SecondAct blog.

Woo hoo!

There’s something especially sweet about recognition that comes out-of-the-blue, and I quickly shared the news with my wonderful friends, who were duly delighted for me.

“That is fabulous—congratulations,” exclaimed one lovely Facebook pal. “As says Joseph Campbell, Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”

On the one hand, I loved the sentiment. On the other, I had to laugh. I can’t count the number of times when no such thing has happened. I’m living proof that you can follow your bliss headlong into a wall.

It’s true that in recent months, my life has been on the upswing—I’ve been picking up paying work and this blog (which I love writing) has been featured on New England NPR and otherwise gathering steam. But it’s also true that I’m just emerging from two quite difficult years. And I got there (just as I got here) by trying to follow my heart, my bliss, or whatever you want to call it.

I use the word trying for a reason. We often talk as if it’s easy to know the right thing to do, you just need the courage to do it. I don’t quite see it that way. To me, the whole process of charting next steps is endlessly mysterious (as well as endlessly fascinating).

For example:  How do we know that we’re listening to some true, higher, authentic self (assuming that such a thing even exists, which, as I’ve written before, is subject to debate) as opposed to internalized parental tapes or other conditioning?

The best answer I’ve ever gotten to this question (which I’ve asked more times than I care to count) came from Stephen Cope, author of the terrific Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. What he proposed—and this was a long time ago, so I may not have it exactly right—is to focus on two questions:

1. Is this desire one that has stayed with you over time?

2. How does your body—your physical self—respond to this desire?

Over the years, I’ve referred to these questions a lot, and I’m pretty sure they’ve helped.

Still, as I think back over decades of decision making, it strikes me that my more problematic choices have stemmed not from a failure to consult my heart but rather from careening between extremes.  

Not happy being a newspaper reporter in rural Mississippi? Fine! Why don’t you go to Harvard Law School and then practice corporate law in Manhattan?

Not happy practicing corporate law in Manhattan? Fine! Why don’t you quit your job and study yoga and write mystery novels?

And so on.

It’s not that any of these choices were inherently bad ones—I liked law school. I had fun writing thrillers. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to do any and all of these things—just  that they probably weren’t the shortest or simplest path to a stable and sustaining life.

Those who follow a macrobiotic diet believe that when we eat extreme Yin foods (sugar, alcohol) we crave extreme Yang foods (red meat, eggs).  It’s best to avoid such foods, they say, as we are healthiest when we mainly eat foods at the middle of the Yin/Yang spectrum.

Similarly, I’ve come to think that I make better decisions when I’m operating from a baseline of equanimity, not when I’m attempting to race from one peak experience to the next. You might say I’ve adopted a macrobiotic theory of life.

In the end, though, I don’t really see any way around the fact that life is essentially messy and unpredictable, regardless of what we do. It gets bad, then it gets better, then it gets worse, then it gets really really great, and then it sucks, then it’s okay for a while. You can follow your bliss to . . . well, bliss, or follow it into a wall. If you live a long and full life, you’ll likely do both more than once.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

23 thoughts on “What I’ve learned from following my bliss (straight into the wall)

  1. I was prompted to re-read this post by your recent guest post on equanimity and some further reading of Work Stew essays. The whole follow-your-bliss, do-what-you-love thing — so much to think about. I never considered that following my bliss was the way I should go until I became increasingly dissatisfied with career (or lack thereof) at which point I began to feel that I was too invested/too old/too risk-averse to do it. Is there such thing as too late? I think there is, but would love to be proved wrong.

    • I”ll try to prove you wrong :-) It actually seems to me like a lot of people are going for something more meaningful in the second half of life — the whole Encore Career phenomenon is a reflection of that. I interviewed someone for a freelance piece who said the common perspective among such folks is: “If not now, when?” In other words, sometimes we have to get to a certain point before the risks of staying put seem greater than the risks of taking a risk.

      Are you familiar with Marc Freedman’s book Encore? It’s on my desk right now. Also, he has another one, but I can’t remember the name — Amazon would have it. There’s a LinkedIn group too. Anyway, good luck & keep me posted!

      • Thanks Amy — I’ll check out the books. I also have an article from the Harvard Business Review on the subject, the point being that we are living long enough to have more than one productive career in our lives.

        All of the testimonials I have read or heard about involve people with two things in common: they are reasonably clear about what their ‘more meaningful’ second career will be, and their first career was financially rewarding enough (tho’ they may have hated it) to allow them to quit and shift directions. I can claim neither of these, and I have a wife with health issues, two young kids, and a mortgage, so the risk of following my bliss is high.

        I’m totally in agreement with the ‘if not now, when’ concept. It’s the rest that is unclear.

        • Yes, the money piece is definitely a huge issue for most of us — in fact, a big report on Encore Careers cited this as a major challenge to those who want to move in this direction.

          Re: knowing what you want to do, that’s less true I think — my all time very favorite career book is Herminia Ibarra’s Working Identity (I’ve written about it/her on the blog in the event you want to seach). She’s a B-school professor (at INSEAD) and has done empirical research on midlife career changes, concluding that successful changers don’t research, plan & execute — the way we typically think about career change– but rather experiment and essentially live their way into a satisfying new direction. Great book, I highly recommend it — it also appears to have heavily informed the thinking behind The Start-Up of You — another interesting book — by LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman & co-author Ben Casnocha. Again, best of luck & keep me posted!

  2. My problem with the advice to “follow my bliss” is that I’ve never really been able to figure out what my bliss is.

  3. The last paragraph of your article sums of life beautifully. When following bliss nothing will ever go as planned, it’ll be harder than you thought and you’ll wonder many times “why am I doing this?”. They key is to fall in love with the thrill of rollercoaster ride! …and never stop believing that things will get better.

    • Thanks, Wendy! Falling in love with the roller coaster is not something I see in my future–I think the ups and downs are scary & hard, and I’ve never really been a thrill seeker–but I have, over time, managed to cultivate some equanimity, to be okay with things as they are because . . . that’s how they are. :-)

  4. Amy, I’ve done tons of zigging and zagging, much as you have. Strategist, aerial photographer in the Amazon, strategist, restaurant owner in Mexico, strategist, specialty rock importer, strategist … etc. And if I’m honest with myself, I always end up back at about the same place … with a new twist each time. I figure I’m just “testing the Universe” to be sure I’ve got it right. Sure would be easier to just settle in to what I’m best at, and uniquely good at, but wouldn’t be half the fun!

    • If you’ve had fun with your zigging & zagging, that’s great, Sharon! I was getting at something a little different here–the swinging between extremes as a reaction to what came before rather than a considered whole-hearted movement towards another possibility. That’s where I’ve gotten in trouble, I think: I seem to make better decisions when I manage to hold off making big decisions about What Next? while I’m still in the midst of a situation where I’m unhappy. (Even though that often means sitting with painful uncertainty for way longer than I’d like to–as I did for a good part of the past 2 1/2 years.)

  5. I like to have goal or end game or something to focus on. However, for me, the journey must be as fun as the destination. New Belgium Brewing calls it following your folly. You call it following your bliss. Regardless of the name, I very much like the idea. Another great post. Thanks!

    • Ah yes, FUN! Always a good thing to keep in mind. I tend to forget about that part way too much. Thanks for the reminder. :-)

  6. This is a very thought-provoking post for me, as I am contemplating my relationship decisions, and wondering which is more important: my head or my heart? It’s both, of course. The ephemeral middle path is always the best. That’s why I practice yoga. It helps me see that path just a little more clearly.

    • Glad you liked the post, Molly–& so good to see you this weekend. Hope to have a repeat in the not-too-distant future!

  7. Great post, Amy. I love the tone.
    I was at a Stephen Cope event and met you. Years ago at Kripalu, when you were finishing up your first book.
    Glad to find you again.


    • Wow, how fun to hear from you, Hope! How did you come upon the blog? In any case, many thanks for reading (and commenting) & so glad you liked the post.

      • I found the blog because I followed you on Twitter, natch! But it might have been that someone retweeted the post. And Twitter being so vast means I can’t remember how I came upon you there…

        But I don’t ask questions, I just click and follow!

        Okay, I do ask questions, too.

  8. As usual, I totally identify with everything you said. In my case: not happy as a struggling singer in New York? Fine, go to Law School and get a job at a big firm in Los Angeles. Hate it there? Quit and move back to NY to sing. Singing work drying up? Move to Turkey and write about it. Is there another way to live?

    • Hmm. I don’t know your story from the inside, but you stuck with (& were successful with) the singing for a good long time. Assuming it felt sustaining while you were doing it, that strikes me as pretty much the best we can hope for in life. :-)

      I probably should have been a bit clearer about what seems problematic to me in my own path–it’s not just the fact that I’ve done a bunch of different things but rather the fact that I tended to embark on a new path largely in reaction to what had preceded. In the same vein, a lawyer/writer friend once confided to me that, when she was working in housing court, all she wanted to do in her free time was write articles about fingernail polish for Cosmo. That’s the sort of swinging between extremes I meant to be getting at. Ultimately, neither housing court nor fingernail polish were paths to fulfillment for her (though they might have been for others). Rather, she was trying to compensate for two (equally unfulfilling) extremes. The yin/yang thing.

  9. Thanks Amy for a really honest look-back on how to connect the dots, when one has done various things to a variety of tunes. Your courage is amazing!

  10. How is it these posts keep getting better when they started out so great to begin with?

    • Aww, thanks Penny. Whatever I’m doing right, I’m pretty sure that my wonderfully supportive friends have a lot to do with it! :-)

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