Know Your Agenda

Last week I realised that I have the power to take on work that aligns with my agenda. What I had a hard time pinning down was exactly what my agenda is.

I’m a creative person so, at any given time, I have about a billion and one ideas about what I could spend my energy on. I’ve got ideas for blog posts, podcasts, videos, books, products, businesses, you name it, rolling around in my head constantly. I never have a hard time filling my time.

What I do have a hard time filling my time with is things that are actually important to my life overall. I’ve gone off the rails a bit recently and started bingeing on junk food projects instead of focusing on the meat and potatoes that will sustain me emotionally, physically, mentally and creatively long term.

The thing about meat and potatoes projects is that they fall into the icky category. Not icky in their purpose but icky in their execution. They matter more, but they take more time. Lots of time, usually. They need to be broken down into smaller chunks and you need to be patient and keep your eye on the prize. I would rather eat a whole tube of Pringles, Cookie Monster-style*, than wait for a pot roast to simmer for seven hours. I’m not a patient person.

If you’ve ever read Wait But Why – particularly his posts on procrastination (links here for 1, 2 and 3) – you might pin me down as an Impostinator. And you’d be totally right. I can find a dozen things that I want to be doing right now because they feel urgent for one reason or another. It often cripples me from doing the actually important things for my life as a whole.

So this week, I sat down and really looked at the important stuff in my life, the big-ticket items that will take some time but that ultimately provide a well-rounded diet for my life.

Here are the Top 3 things I came up with:
  • Opening our dive centre – This is huge for us. Chris and I have talked about it for ages and it is something we both want in a very real way. We’ve started laying out our plans and making decisions that will take us in this direction. It’s scary, it’s complicated, it’s exciting, it’s the biggest, most important thing in our lives right now. I’m crazy excited about it.
  • Enjoying our time in Oman – Things here are slightly unstable, not for us so much as for the country as a whole. While low gas prices are great for many people, for those selling the gas it means a huge financial strain. We know we’ll be here for this year. We don’t know what will happen after that in the job market. That means we want to really explore and enjoy the country for the time we know we have in it. There’s still so much to do!
  • Quality time with my peeps – This one is slightly tricky as most of my peeps live across a really big pond. It is incredibly important for me to nurture my relationships with my friends and family, no matter how far away they are. It means a lot of Skype dates, a lot of texting at inconvenient times, and a lot of navigating through the world of keeping-in-touch apps that never seem to do exactly what I need them to do for everyone I talk to. It’s a pain. But I love them enormously and I can’t do any of the other things in my life that matter without them in it.

Narrowing my agenda down to these three actually important things means that I can now check any opportunities or project ideas I have against this list. If they push these things forward, I’m on it. If they take away from them, no way. It’s a really useful tool for knowing what to say yes to and, much harder for me, knowing what to say no to.

It also lets me see how I can double up on my energy. For example, if I had an opportunity to work at a dive shop in Oman it would benefit both our future dive shop and my enjoyment of Oman. Bonus! If I had a chance to explore Oman with my friends here, it would be a double win. Sweet! And opening our dive centre means having a place where friends and family can come visit on the cheap. Fabulous!

Knowing what my agenda is has made it crystal clear what I need to be working on – and what I don’t. It gives my work a focus and my energy a direction. It cuts through the crap and gets to the heart of my desires and hopes for the future.

It also makes me feel exposed. Seeing what actually matters to me has highlighted how much energy I’ve spent on other things in an attempt to avoid diving into some icky jobs. It’s so much easier to sit on the couch and eat junk food than spend hours in the kitchen slaving away. But I’m finally hungry for some meat and potatoes, no matter how much work it takes to make them happen.

*Cookie Monster knows his agenda.

Have Your Own Agenda

Ira Glass wrote something that stuck out to me. Have your own agenda.

We all want to work for ourselves. That’s the dream. But even when we are working for other people, we can still have our own agenda.

I used to do this all the time. I saw my jobs as tools that I leveraged to get the things I wanted. I got a nearly-free Bachelor’s degree from one, cheap hotels from another and all the chocolate I could eat from yet another. I always took jobs that  gave me more than a paycheck. Even my application decisions were calculated. I didn’t see any other way of doing it. If I was going to give them my time and my energy, I wanted to get things back that added to my life as a whole. Free books. Free public transport. Whatever it was, I always had an agenda. There was always an angle I was working. And why not?

Now that I am not working in a traditional way, however, I find that I am all over the map. I throw out energy hither and thither with no real reason or purpose. I have things I want to achieve, yes, but I seem to latch on to anything that promises a little bit of money in the short term and I no longer weigh big picture factors as heavily.

I haven’t had as much choice in my jobs lately, so much of it has been a matter of survival. I get that. But I realised today that even in the midst of this situation, even when I really need a job just to pay the bills and save up for the future, I still have a choice. I can still find ways to get more than a paycheck out of the jobs I am doing. And if a potential job doesn’t match my agenda, I can say no to it and use my energy more effectively, putting it into things that serve the bigger picture, not just the next paycheck.

Curiouser and Curiouser

I’m a curious person. I love things that make me go, “Hmmmm, that’s interesting…” And I love how digging into them often opens up all new avenues for me to pursue. I love the playfulness, the possibility that curiosity brings. Yet I often find myself writing off my curiosity as a fun but, ultimately, useless thing. I push aside my curiosity in the pursuit of something I am told is far more meaningful: passion.

For a long time, I’ve felt an overwhelming pressure (both internally and externally) to “follow my passion” in life. Far from being the rewarding and exciting adventure it is often billed as, however, it feels more like an impossible and thankless task, one that I would even describe emotionally crippling.

The time and energy I have spent looking for my passion, reading about it, filling out worksheets to try to capture it has left me feeling exhausted and desperate. It always feels just out of reach, something I could grasp if only I kept at it, approaching it from different angles, like a buttery kernel of popcorn that has slipped between the cushions.

Enter: Elizabeth Gilbert

A couple of days ago, a friend shared a video with me that freed my mind from the pursuit of passion. In the video, Elizabeth Gilbert, a human who I admire more all the time, describes it like this:

You spend a lot of your life having people tell you to follow your passion. It’s nice advice, it’s heart-warming advice, it’s great advice — if you happen to have one that is very clear and obvious.

Sometimes it feels cruel and all it does is make you feel even worse and more left out, because you’re like, ‘I would if I knew what it was.’

If you’re in that position right now… forget about passion.

Follow your curiosity. It might lead you to your passion or it might not. You might get nothing out of it at all except a beautiful, long life where all you did was follow your gorgeous curiosity. And that should be enough too.

As I processed this idea (in the shower, where all the good thinking happens), I felt an analogy that made the whole thing really click for me and helped me let go of this desperation I have to find my passion.

Prince Charming.

Disney princesses are told that there is a prince who will come, sweep them off their feet and make their life worth living. He could appear anywhere at any time, but when they see him, no matter the circumstance, they will just know. Their eyes will lock, their hearts will sync and they will be one and the same being from that moment on, living happily ever after in bubble of uncontrollable happiness.

When people talk about following your passion, they use imagery like this too.

Just as the Prince Charming myth leads us to ignore every other person along the way who isn’t “The One,” the passion myth makes us ignore our curiosity. Instead of being happy playing the field – having flings, sleeping around, dating the bad boy, snogging a stranger in a shitty pub – we sit in a corner waiting for this knight in shining armor to come and find us. Or even worse, we go desperately looking for him in everyone we see (that’ll be the option I went for).

I am exceedingly guilty of trying to shoehorn my curiosity into a passion. I find something interesting and I tell myself that this must be the one! The thing I’ve been waiting for! The thing I am supposed to do with my life. Finally!

It usually lasts about a week.

Letting go of passion and the idea that it will make you whole is as exhilarating as that lightbulb moment you have after a breakup when you realise you are free to do whatever you want, with whoever you want, for as long as you want.

There’s freedom in that moment. And that freedom sounds far more interesting than spending the rest of my life looking for something perfect – especially when the imperfect things make for far better stories.