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being unwilling to do "whatever it takes"
Wild Letters is a weekly newsletter about self-exploration and building a right-fit life. Thank you for being here with me!
Lately I have been taking stock of my life.
I am 37 years old now. I’m partnered, but am currently uncertain about marriage. I do not want kids. I love the work that I do, and yet I also do not want a Big Career.
Typing that last part makes me physically shiver, gives me a full-body zing that feels something like rebellion, because everything I’ve absorbed in the past 37 years about how to have a “good life” seems to scream that I should want kids or I should want a Big Career or, ideally, I should want both.
Wanting neither makes me feel like I’ve completely stepped off the escalator that the majority of folks seem to be riding. No, that’s not a strong enough way to describe it—lately I’ve been feeling like I’ve leapt off the escalator and fallen out a nearby window, and now I’m just somersaulting through the air on the way toward who-knows-what.
Not wanting kids has always been true for me. The career thing though, that feels new. Or at least it feels more nuanced than it used to, because while I’ve never needed a fancy job title or a progression up any kind of professional ladder, I’ve still held tightly to the (often unconscious) belief that I need to somehow make a sizable impact. You know: leave a legacy. Become indisputably known. Do something impressive, something that matters.
Write a bestseller. Build a 7-figure business. Host events that sell out the day registration goes live. Get profiled in prestigious media outlets. Pick one thing and niche down until I can do that one thing better than anyone else. Create something noteworthy, something mind-blowing, something that brings thousands and thousands of people flocking to my email list so my audience size and my revenue and my influence (and, let’s be honest, my ego) can just grow and grow and grow, upward into forever.
Maybe this is because I graduated college in 2006, and so I came up in the era of The 4-Hour Workweek and the rise of personal branding and the explosion of B-School and online marketing and the over-hyped narrative of “everyone can be wildly successful millionaires if they just follow the 9 simple hacks outlined in my $2,997 e-course!”
It took me so long to even begin untangling myself from these messages, to find joy in the ongoing process of crafting my own definition of success and determining how much (money, recognition, impact) is enough for me at any given point in my life.
Right now for instance:
Success is devoting one hour of each work day to my writing practice, and then bringing my focused energy and attention to the recording sessions for the upcoming season of The Pop-Up Pod. This feels like enough, and yet the deeply embedded messages of how I should be doing more, should want more, should aim higher— sometimes fending off those thoughts feels as endlessly futile as a game of whac-a-mole.
Right now enough money is being able to buy whatever I want at the grocery store without considering the price. It is ordering a hardcover copy of a new book I’m excited about, instead of waiting months for it to become available at the library.
Enough time is letting the dog stop and sniff as many things as she wants on the morning walk. It is uninterrupted hours to read and to make long, spontaneous phone calls to friends. It’s the space to try new recipes on a weeknight without feeling rushed, as if there’s something “better” I should be doing instead.
And my current dreamiest wishlist for a “good life”? It looks like this:
I want everyone I love to feel that love in the deep down marrow of their bones. I want to make art that feels good to make, with absolutely no regard for whether it fits into “my brand” or not. I want endless permission to change and evolve. I want tea in bed. Farmer’s market fruit. Crusty bread that’s warm from the oven and slathered with butter and a sprinkle of Maldon salt. I want friends that feel like family. I want to send people books with sticky notes on the covers that say, “read this and thought of you!” I want to hike. And hike and hike and hike. I want to spread a blanket in the grass in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon and feel the warmth of the sun on my closed eyelids. I want spaciousness. I want body autonomy. I want to be continually radicalized, to commit again and again to the regular work of liberation for all. I want to buy myself flowers. Do my daily little Duolingo lessons and my stretches and my lunar magic rituals. I want to forget that I ever knew the calorie count of anything. I want to start swimming. To get more tattoos. To keep writing this weekly newsletter because it is what most connects me to myself. I want to create paperback versions of my two full-length trail journals, so that anyone who wants to can hold my writing in their hands. I want to trust that all the work I create matters to someone, even if it’s not “leading” anywhere. Wait. That’s it right there, the beating heart of what I’m trying to say, which is that I want to spend my finite time doing things that matter to me without worrying about how it will be perceived or where it’s all leading or what it’s building toward. It doesn’t need to lead anywhere; I am allowed to just… exist. To prioritize pleasure. To settle into all the quiet folds of my own real life and to simply approach each day with curiosity from there.
That is enough.
And yet I’ve been surprised to realize how much guilt (shame?) I still carry about the “smallness” of my desires.
That’s another thing I came up surrounded by these past 10+ years, the dire warnings of what happens to women who ‘play small’ because not wanting more must obviously mean we still have mental blocks to overcome. And maybe that’s true—I’ve certainly benefitted from both coaching and therapy that have helped me to navigate my past history of under-earning and over-giving so that I could build more authentic and supportive ways of being. But can’t there be a cap on that? Meaning: can’t we do that kind of self-discovery work and find that, actually, we don’t crave huge careers or shiny lives?
I’ve thought deeply about this for over a year now, as I’ve slowly moved myself into a gentler approach to goal-setting that I have come to call soft ambition. Ambition without self-punishment.
Because yes, I want things. I have (some) goals. But what happens when you want something but you don’t want it with all your heart? When you want something (you really do!) but you are definitely not willing to do “whatever it takes.”
The sigh of relief in finally accepting that I am not willing to be a “do whatever it takes person”—and that in fact the things that I want most would never require me to put in that kind of all-or-nothing effort—has been profound.
The fulfillment of my desires will never again come at the expense of my own well-being, because the moment I begin to sacrifice myself the goal is no longer worth it.
What does that mean for my future? For the Big Life I am supposed to want? Who knows. For now I am turning away from all that, and turning toward my soft ambition instead.
Soft ambitions. Right-size dreams that honor our true capacity. Fulfillment on our own terms with absolutely nothing to prove to anyone, ever. What if that could be exactly enough?