This week — two weeks ago, really — I was sitting in the lab, waiting on blood work, and reading Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project”. It had arrived that morning in the mail, thanks to Barnes & Noble (seriously, I don’t care if it takes four weeks to get to my house if I can pay using PayPal). As I dove headfirst into Gretchen’s artful prose, I stumbled across an incredibly pertinent quote by poet, W.H. Auden:
“Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass without impunity.”
Sometime in the twelfth grade, I decided I knew exactly who I was going to be when I grew up: a software developer, creating bad-ass programs for some indie company that actually wanted to make a difference in the world. From there, I’d start my own software company, make amazing software that was actually useful and beautiful, and turn a serious profit. I’d be married by twenty-five and have babies by thirty. I’d travel to Europe and maybe live in Rome for a few years.
Sometime in 2008, it fell down around me in great gobs of loose threads and shattered dreams. It turned out that programming was still a game for good ol’ boys; a place where sexism (and ageism) was rampant. It wasn’t a place for a creative-nerd hybrid that longed to make a real difference. I watched my male counterparts being afforded very different opportunities, in spite of of my experience and expertise. By the time my employers had knocked me out on my ass, I was so bitter that I didn’t want any part of software anymore.
Not to work in. Not to create for. Not even to write for.
I was sent spiraling into this new, awkward direction of “Oh shit, I have no idea what to do now.”
The necessary limitation of my nature — an intrinsic need to create and distill meaning — meant that I was naturally unsuited to take orders and accept it unquestioningly. Over the years, I’ve accidentally limited myself to those positions because it was easier to take orders than to make them. If I simply went with what I was told to do, the onus would be on someone else.
Starting up (and growing into) an ittybiz, getting pregnant, and stretching my wings far beyond the accidental limitations I had placed on myself was a lot of pressure. And yeah, I cracked a few times. If you look closely, you’ll see the fine lines that are becoming cracks all over again. I’m having to (re)discover who I am. I’ve consumed vast quantities of information on the subjects of happiness, joy (like the Joy Equation), creative entrepreneurship, and (un)marketing.
I’ve spent large chunks of time trying to distill meaning from it all. Because, really, how does it all add up to a happy, meaningful life? I feel like I’m back in eleventh grade mathematics, observing an asymptote: the closer I get to an answer, the farther I get from the meaning.
It’s an interesting notion to think that our rite of passage — our quarter-life crises — is something that’s been expected of us all along. Auden’s insistence that self discovery really happens for the entirety of our middle years (for twenty years!) takes a lot of pressure off. If I’m still figuring out what an accidental limitation is as opposed to a natural limitation is well into my thirties, I know that I’ve only come partway through my arduous journey of self discovery and “finding myself”.
I can live with that.
Photo via The Notebook Doodles.