Posted by: Mark Nielsen | July 16, 2008

When I Grow Up I’m Going To…

Fill in the blank.

We’ve all said it. Many times, probably beginning the first month we could string a complete sentence together. Of course, at that point, we were probably saying, “When I grow up, I’m going to eat ice cream for every meal, nothing but ice cream.” 

What I never expected, though, is that I would still be using this phrase at age 42.

Some people, the George Baileys of the world, are just “born older”. Let’s call them the Settlers. I don’t mean anything negative in using this term. All I mean is that they find a groove early, they mostly stay in it, and they take whatever success or failure comes from this basically straight arc of a life path they have “settled into”. If they can get past that nasty old “midlife crisis” thing, they do pretty well for themselves, interpersonally and financially.

Some settlers start working at a young age, maybe even helping support their parents or siblings. Maybe they get married young or have a baby. Maybe they just have a clear vision and an ambition to get exactly what they are after, and they chase it down. High school, college, maybe grad school, then a steady climb up the ladder in a single field of work, until they hit some ceiling either within themselves or in society. They take a pre-worn path that makes sense to them, they have few regrets, and they take for granted certain “facts” and necessary compromises. Many existential questions, for a settler, are easily settled. There’s one right answer, and they live it out as best they can. They may not even be inclined to ask a lot of those kind of questions in the first place. Settlers are do-ers, and generally this is the type of person that makes the world go. 

And then there are the Searchers. I’m a searcher. I envy those damned settlers, with all their certainty and success and non-rebellious bliss. But I’m afraid I can never be one.

Searchers are internally tuned to search, to experiment, to wander through life a bit, to question what the settlers take for granted. A searcher can be like an advance scout, sent out to identify an entirely new path and test whether it’s safe or not, and where it will lead.

Except most searchers are self-appointed. We don’t often choose to be a searcher. No sane, responsible person would do something so foolish. To be a searcher is to agree that it’s okay to be lost for a time. Most seachers either intentionally leave or compulsively lose track of the path, a path that previous settlers so kindly laid out for them.

Sometimes a searcher is enticed to leave those well-worn paths by the promise of something exciting out in the woods, or just over the horizon in the other direction.

Other searchers are just dissatisfied with the path itself, and are compelled to strike out on their own by some vague internalized calling. They leave the path with a hope, and a faith (however they define it), that there is something better out there for them, and perhaps for everyone else as well. 

Searchers are not all narcissists, though. Most still want to play a vital role in the world. They hope to contribute to the community, but they have no choice but to do so by being a maverick (to borrow one of McCain’s favorite words), a discoverer, an outsider, a reformer, an advance scout in previously unexplored territories, using a machete to cut a wide and sometimes painful swath through the jungle.

[Since I brought up MCain, let me say I think the 2008 election may be the first in history, or at least the first since Reagan v. Carter, to pit two searchers against each other. Neither Obama nor McCain has proven themselves a true insider, entirely beholden to or accepted by their traditonal constituencies. If McCain’s sidestepping of religious postures and Obama’s “oreo” branding by Jesse Jackson and the black community has shown us anything, it’s that these candidates are not afraid to go off-script in forging a political path for themselves. Certainly McCain is more a “company man” than Obama, but I think his basic identity is to be a reformer, which places him somewhere to the left of the neo-conservative movement. (My conservative ex-brother-in-law once called him a commie, but he was mostly just being the inflammatory jerk he’s always been.) ]

Back to ordinary settlers and searchers like you and me:

I know several searchers now, over 35, who are in a similar place emotionally, professionally, or spiritually. One is adopting a child from Russia, at age 43. One is going to med school – she’s also about 43, though in a recent email she said she still feels 26 on the inside. My sister, now 36, is also back in school to get more training in some sort of design field. Whe she grows up she’s going to be some unique combination of artist and inventor, creating the next Furby, iPod, Post-It note, or other such triumph of creativity through new technology. Even my pastor, a classic searcher, is going back to school full-time to fill in all the gaps he’s felt for years in the what and how of his daily work.

While many searchers do have that hope that I discussed earlier, at our core we are perpetually dissatisfied. It may be a dissatisfaction with the world, and what all those doggone settlers have done to the place. It may be a dissatisfaction with ourselves, a drive to better ourselves, to find some essential answer to that age old question: Why am I here? It may just be a dissatisfaction with one particular area of life, like Dr. Richard Jarvik’s frustration over losing his father to a heart attack, which drove him to create the first artificial heart.

Whichever you are, searcher or settler, the bottom line is that we need each other. I’m married to a settler, for example. She’s very organized, high-functioning, and quite good at helping other settlers and searchers become smarter, stronger, more complete versions of themselves (myself included). But at her core, I don’t think she’s looking to reinvent the world. She’s just living in it, adapting to it, and whenever possible, admiring and appreciating it.

Whichever you are, go be the best you can be. And forgive the other type. They’re only doing what they gotta do, just like you. (Like my wife, who just kicked me off the computer, since I took too long to write all this up, and the day has 101 other little responsibilities that I have to take on.)


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