Once upon a time I followed my then-husband's career from city to city until he dumped me. Not the profile of a brilliant career strategist, I know. But I learned so much from those mistakes I vowed to share them on the radio talk show they inspired, The Career Clinic. That program recently became Doing What Works.
I'd been working "real" jobs, corporate jobs, before this transition -- and we'd saved enough money for me to pursue a lifelong dream of freelance writing while staying home with kids. Then in one moment all the labels fell off. I didn't have a business card with a title on it, and I wasn't about to apply for jobs in a town I had no plans to live in anymore. You couldn't call me Mrs. Somebody, not for much longer. Even mail addressed to "Resident" wouldn't apply, and there was no forwarding address to give the post office yet.
I had the luxury of doing nothing but grieve for the next several months, and I took it. All I had to show for myself were five miles on the running track, every other day, hoping the tears would look like sweat.
Eventually, I was up for more than just working out and crying, so I offered to write some features for the local newspaper. I did that for one reason. It sounded fun. How's that for logic? Foreign to me at the time, but effective to such a degree I think of it now as more law than guideline.
I had always loved airplanes until one particularly bumpy ride. In typical corny "face your fears" fashion, I asked the manager of the little airport in town if he'd arrange a flying lesson for me in return for an article in the newspaper about the experience. Not only did he agree to it, but in the process of setting it up he got to know me a little bit. He knew about the divorce -- everyone did, it seemed -- and he wondered what jobs I planned to go after once I found a new home.
"You know what you should do?" he asked. No. I did not. "You should be the host of a radio talk show." I can't remember what I said. I just remember my heart leaping at the thought. What did I value most in all the world? Sparkling conversation. What did people consistently tell me they enjoyed about me? Well, that. To get paid for doing it? Oh...
I thought back to what delighted me as a child. Giving speeches, doing readings. Writing out notes for a presentation to the class using colored markers on index cards. Being in front of a microphone. Other girls played with Barbies. I set up a little desk in front of a bureau in my parents' bedroom before I was in kindergarten, even. I pretended to read news stories to my television audience, the dresser drawers -- turning over page after page with great flourish.
Gradually I decided a broadcasting career was for movie-star types, not something you pursued if you were serious -- and especially if you were serious about making money.
I forgot all about what I loved.
Radio talk show host sounded fun. I turned it over in my head, and decided no one deserves to be that happy.
I wrote the piece about conquering my fear of flying. "I'd been on scary flights before," it began, "but this one was a wing dinger..." It appeared in the paper. A girlfriend, who wrote a column for the same paper, watched her husband read it and laugh all the way through it. My heart soared again. I decided I'd never had more fun in my life. I came up with an idea, pitched it, sold it, pulled it off exactly the way I wanted -- and people loved it.
I thought about a talk I'd had recently with a cherished friend. He had always encouraged me to write. "You'll never be at peace," he said, "until you start writing and never stop."
In the course of about a week I had everything I needed to know what career path I should pursue, but I was afraid it was silly -- that I was full of it. So much so I continued to swear I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I meant it, too. I was sure I was clueless about what I should be doing -- and oh, the irony.
To know what you're meant to do with your life is one thing. To actually do it? That's scary. So scary that in my case it was easier to pretend I didn't know. I must've done a good job of pretending, because I continued to feel mostly dread when I contemplated the future. I pushed my dreams down. It was too much to process, the implosion of so many other dreams -- of a family, of a so-called normal life -- that to imagine anything good on the horizon? I didn't think I could do it. I had a storage locker filled with souvenirs of a life that was slipping away, but I clung to the memories anyway. They were all I had. To try to put them out of my mind long enough to focus on the future felt dishonorable -- as if I was erasing the person I still was.
Once I gave grief its due, though, it really didn't take all that long to live into the vision I'd accidentally created. The secret was to close one chapter before I opened the next.
This is an excerpt from Maureen's upcoming book, Do-Over: An Accidental Template for Scaling the Abyss.