by Jen Chau
I feel like I have been under a rock! The last couple of months have been somewhat tumultuous. I’ll give you a sense of what has been going on.
Imagine – your name is Jen Chau, and you’re the Human Resources Director for an education reform organization. You’re happy and you envision yourself doing this work for a long time. You enjoy the work that goes into supporting the internal workings of an organization, and you usually feel like you are helping to move the organization in a good direction. Sure, you have your frustrations from time to time, but your work is typically challenging and rewarding. Plus, you are going for a part-time Masters for Organizational Change Management. Everything in your life fits into a nice and neat puzzle. Your schooling informs your work and your work informs your schooling. It can’t get any better! And then, after leaving work one day, you find yourself walking down the street with a little hop in your step, a smile on your face…. And without notice, you are grabbed into an alleyway by a shadowy figure! He puts his gloved hand over your mouth and tells you that you aren’t who you think you are. Your name is not Jen Chau and you aren’t meant to be doing what you are doing. He demands an answer to the question, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?! ANSWER ME!!! WHERE?!”
Ok, it didn’t exactly happen like that, but I figured some kind of dramatic abduction would sound more interesting than merely saying that I have been trying to figure out my life, doesn’t it? One guarantee to my readers – I’ll always try and entertain ya. ;)
So, the dreaded five year, ten year question. I haven’t had a great history with this question. When I was little, I was more sure of myself. I thought I could see even twenty years into the future. And do you know what I saw? Don’t laugh… I saw myself as a ballerina. That’s right. A professional ballerina. Perhaps I learned not to trust my professional predictions after I tried my hand at ballet and quit early on account of my extreme clunkiness. I just wasn’t a graceful child. This may have been due to the fact that my feet did not grow at a proportional rate to the rest of my body. I could have leaned forward until my nose was about two inches off the ground. My boat-like feet kept me planted firmly on the ground and weren’t so helpful when I was trying to leap across the studio floor like a beautiful swan (that doesn’t even make sense. I don’t think swans leap. But you know what, they would probably be better at it than I would). My other guesses at my future life included astronaut, ice skater, and nuclear physicist (pronounced in my toddler speak as noo-klee-er fizz-izz-izz-ist). Obviously someone fed me that last one!
After ballet didn’t work out, I think I stopped guessing, or imagining. And then I was faced with the question again, in a dreaded college entrance interview. I was meeting with a stuffy old guy in a suit – he was an alum interviewer for Yale, based here in NYC. I don’t remember where his office was, but I remember sitting quite close to him in a small room. His line of questioning was winding down and I was feeling pretty good about the interview. Then he said, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I had always been a very go-with-the-flow kind of gal, so I thought it would be best to be honest. I said something to the effect of, “I don’t really know where I will be in five years. Life brings so many exciting challenges, and I guess I will see what happens. I don’t like to plan because then I will not be as open to moments when I have the opportunity to be spontaneous.” Cue the losing wah wah wah wah sound. Though I knew it was a risky answer, I lived my life with this lack of planning, and I wasn’t going to pretend otherwise. I liked not being a planner in the rigid, robotic ways my classmates were striving to be. And honestly, I didn’t even feel like I knew where I wanted to be! So why confine myself to something?
I don’t know if that did me in with my chances at Yale (I got waitlisted), but I still remember the shift in my interviewer’s body language when I gave him my answer. He definitely tensed up and seemed unhappy with my response. Unfortunately, I was too young in my thinking to recognize how I could have done better and instead thought, “ugh, that old guy needs to loosen up!” I have always been a stickler for truthfulness and didn’t like being penalized for it. Of course, the reality is that there are moments in life where you have to make a good “impression.” I didn’t want to believe that I would have to compromise who I truly was in order to make this kind of impression.
Anyway, my point is that I resisted any attempt at thinking about what my future might look like. I have been riding the great waves that have fortunately come my way. I have been lucky to happen upon wonderful experience after wonderful experience, and I don’t regret any of my career decisions. But the reality is that I have let myself feel things out without tons of thinking. I fall into something, see how I like it, and change my course if it doesn’t feel like a good match (I tend to rely quite heavily on what my heart says and listen to my mind as an afterthought at times). Like I said, I don’t regret because I have learned a lot about myself and what I want to do with my life. I don’t think I could do the thinking about my future that I am doing now…even last year. Each experience has been added to the combination of all previous experiences in order to build an extremely nuanced understanding of what I need to do and be in life in order to feel happy and fulfilled.
I had a huge awakening a few years back when a good friend of mine, Lisa – who I don’t see as much as I’d like – gave me some feedback. She told me that she saw me as this person who didn’t think much about her own development, but rather that I just went wherever people pushed me. I was talking with her about how my boss at the time thought I would be the perfect candidate for an MBA. This pushed me into pursuing it, even though I had never considered it previously. It was hard to hear this, but she was right. And she was able to see this even with her limited view of me (we maybe saw each other every few months at the time). She was right! What was I doing? Somehow along the way, I learned to care more about what others thought of me, than what I thought of myself! Friends’ suggestions, recommendations, advice; a mentor letting me know that I should look into something; they would all propel me into action. Now, don’t get me wrong…I think it makes sense to take in external messages, and let them motivate you, encourage you, and inform your thinking where relevant. But, I think it gets dangerous when you don’t have a strong sense of what your personal goals and mission are. That’s where I was for a while – so I would just ride the wave of one great suggestion after another. Thankfully, they were all great suggestions that led to fantastic experiences, but they weren’t necessarily connected to any larger goal that I had for myself.
As of November 2007, I could say that I had effectively avoided the “where do you see yourself question” for approximately twelve years. Yikes. [Give me a second…I’m reminding myself that it’s ok. The experiences I have had have been priceless and I needed them to get to where I am today. People take different routes…and I have taken the long way ;)]. Annnd…I’m back.
I was in Boston visiting with one of my closest friends in the world, Susan Lambe. I will have to write more about her one day, because she is absolutely fantastic in a million and three ways. I had been thinking of applying for PhD programs, and because she is currently in one, she was great about getting me to think about what I want to study, what I want to get out of a PhD degree, and the dreaded, where do I see myself in five years!? Yes, the more you run from something, the harder it kicks you in the gut when it finally catches up to you. J I promise.
So, here I find myself forced to think about it. You absolutely must if you want to commit yourself to 5-7 years of study. It’s no joke. I am excited about being where I am now, even though it’s a little unsettling. There I was, just a few months ago, so sure of what I wanted. But you know, what? I realize that I was sure without checking in with myself and *asking* myself what I wanted. What I thought was right was actually just comfortable. Now that I am forcing myself to imagine the life that I want for myself, I realize that I actually finally have a lot of the answers. It’s been a long road leading up to this point, and it’s going to be a long road to even prepare myself to be a strong candidate for PhD programs (let alone getting accepted!), but I am 300% ready to put the work in. I am excited to find myself on a road. A road that leads to a destination that I recognize and even dream about. I’m taking out my hiking shoes and putting my surfboard away – I’m done with the waves.