Where Do You See Yourself in 20 Years?

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The wrong answer

April 2013
I’ve found my purpose in life a couple of times now. Or at least I thought I did. Each time, the fire was strong enough to keep my dreams alive with promises of a meaningful future. Each time, another fire ignited inside of me even stronger than the previous, coming with a slight change of direction. Time and time again, I thought I could happily march on into the field that attracted me then and live my life happily in that sphere. By now I understand that commitment issues are not restricted to relationships.

They say freedom means having the possibility to make choices, but I see nothing more restrictive than making a choice and thus burning the bridge to all the endless possibilities that could have been. Before every hard decision I feel fear, and after every hard decision I’m encompassed by a sense of loss for all the forgone options.

Maybe for some us there is no ultimate moment of clarity that persists for the rest of our lives. Maybe all we have is momentary sparks that nudge us in the right direction. And yet I wish there were more hours in the day to read, to explore, to create, to play.

Perhaps I romantically cling to the idea of the Universal Man, who’s born with a curiosity for all areas of life and develops extensive knowledge in many branches. Perfection of form and content, that’s what I want. Da Vinci would approve. On the other hand Da Vinci wasn’t stuck in profession limbo...

When someone asks me for my definite life plan, it feels like I have to pick something, anything to give a clear and precise answer that falls within some predetermined and recognized category. How can I say: well, the plan is to study this and that, master these two-three fields, discover some more interesting things along the way, and then surrender myself to the magic reaction that occurs when the particles of different topics mix together in one mind.

At the same time, Malcom Gladwell’s voice keeps reaffirming the 10,000 hour rule somewhere in the back of my mind: To achieve mastery in any field you require about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Damn, by now I have mastered breathing and sleeping. If I need to invest 10 years in everything I love, my parents should not hold their breath waiting for my great achievements.

The obvious solution to this issue is to pick a profession and work towards it. I must say I truly admire highly specialized professionals, not for the work involved, but for committing themselves so fervently to doing one particular thing for the rest of their lives. The rest of their lives. There’s a nod in my throat just typing that….

When I pondered where my gymnastics training could take me. I had to decide if I want to be a professional gymnast or reduce this sport to mere pastime activity. Had I decided in favour of the sport, today, at 23, I’d be slowly approaching the end of my career. I probably would not speak English very well, I wouldn’t have lived in Vienna, I’d be opening a gym or coaching some poor young girls on how to properly sacrifice their lives to this sport. Do I regret this choice? Absolutely not. I’ll always have sport in my blood and a gripping addiction to it, but the ghost of olympics-could-have-been is definitely not haunting my dreams. Just as well, I don't regret not picking law, construction or architecture, which I seriously considered. And didn't we all start out as wanna-be astronauts?

As for my own future, I tend to walk the paths that don’t restrain my options and narrow my horizon. For those who ask, I hope that “I will invent my own profession” is a reasonable answer. After all, life is infinite in its complexity. Why should my life’s purpose be any different?

Update: September 2014
More than a year has past since I wrote that text. In the meantime, I finished my studies, went through a couple of jobs, experienced joy and pain as never before, tasted both accomplishment and loss and for all of that, I am none the wiser. Not in this regard.

Ask me where I see myself in 20 years, and I’ll still give you the wrong answer.

References:

Outliers: the Story of Success
Malcolm Gladwell, 2008

Image: Leonardo Da Vinci's Hybrid from the "The Mind of Leonardo" exhibit in Rome. This represents Da Vinci's vision of the metamorphosis of terrestrial beings into flying ones. For me, it's a symbol of transcendence.