Do you want what you don’t want? More accurately, do you try to convince yourself that you want what you think you should want? Maybe it’s something your parents told you: “A graphic designer? You should become a doctor or a lawyer, or at least an accountant. You’ll make good money, and people will respect you.” Maybe it’s something your friends told you: “You don’t really like that kind of music, do you? Nobody listens to it anymore.” Maybe you don’t know what you want, so you catch a ride on whatever wagon happens to be passing by.
When I was a kid, my dream was to become an oceanographer, like my idol, Jacques Cousteau. I’ve always felt a special connection with the sea. My high-school guidance counselor, however, tried to talk me out of it: “So many kids grew up watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and went into oceanography. The field is glutted. You’ll need to go on for your master’s degree, and maybe a PhD, and you still probably won’t be able to find a job when you graduate.” I was interested in electronic music, so I decided to become an electrical engineer and maybe end up designing synthesizers.
The problem was that I didn’t like math, and most of my courses were heavy on math. I didn’t apply myself, and my grades began to suffer. After two years, I announced to my parents that I wanted to switch majors, but I didn’t know to what. “No matter what you do, you’ll be in business in some way,” my dad told me. So I switched my major to business administration. I found it boring, but it was easy for me, and I didn’t want to switch my major a third time, so I stuck it out until graduation.
I envied my friend David, who long before had found his calling in the field of classical linguistics and had gone to Harvard for a PhD. I envied my friend Jerry, who had dropped out of college to live a Jack Kerouac lifestyle, wanting to experience everything life had to offer. I envied my friend John, who had moved to Hollywood to break into the film industry. I had dreams of becoming a writer/artist/musician/filmmaker, but I never was able to figure out how to do it. I avoided committing myself to the usual path of career, marriage, kids, and a house. I didn’t want to be tied down by responsibilities. I felt I was destined for something greater. I wanted to live a larger-than-life life, like T.E. Lawrence, Steven Spielberg, or Ernest Hemingway. David told me, “It’s hard enough living an ordinary-size life.” Jerry told me, “Hemingway paid the price for being Hemingway.”
In 1997, my four best friends, for different reasons, moved away from Atlanta to pursue their paths. It was a sign. My own life had been in a rut for years, and I’d long talked about moving somewhere else, just for a change of scenery. I’d visited Seattle the previous year, so I summoned the courage to move to the Pacific Northwest, where I knew no one. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Portland was a place where I felt I could be happy for years—maybe even for the rest of my life. I bought a house. I decided to find my soul mate and settle down. I met Pam, fell in love, married her, and became a stepfather to her two sons. I found a job in a field that I truly enjoyed, rather than one I merely tolerated.
One day, Pam said to me, “You’ve spent your life chasing other people’s rainbows. What is your rainbow?” It dawned on me that I’d found it: I was living the “ordinary life” that my 21-year-old self had so feared and therefore derided, and I was loving it. It was what I was meant to do. We often talk about how we wish we’d met each other when we were young, but we know that we wouldn’t have appreciated each other then. All we have for certain is the now.
What about you? Have you spent your life chasing other people’s rainbows? What is your rainbow?
Featured image at top: Rainbow over Punchbowl crater, Oahu