Before I took up my scholarship to Singapore, me and my fellow scholarship recipients, went on this retreat to the countryside of Bogor, a town up by the mountains, an hour drive South from Jakarta.
The purpose of the trip was to mainly bond us as a group—we were about to spend at least 2 years together in the same hostel dorm; 4 years in the same country. But the retreat was also designed for reflection and using that introspection to then visualize where we wanted to go from here. (I wrote a blogpost years ago on it which you can read for some deep 15-year-old
angst wisdom here)
And when I was asked about what I wanted to do with my life, I ended up filling a tiny square of origami paper with a huge list of things that I wanted to be—photographer, author, journalist, filmmaker, designer, musician, etc. Of course, I realize now that what that list really was, was simply a list of things I wanted to try—photography, writing, music, videography, travel, etc.
“My Mom says that when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my typical response was princess-ballerina-astronaut. What she doesn’t understand is that I wasn’t trying to invent some combined super profession, I was listing things I thought I was gonna get to be.” — Sarah Kay from her TED talk “How many lives can you live?”
Once I got in front of the group, I felt a horrible fear grip me. I can’t read everything on this list, it’s ridiculous. While this was a safe space, I didn’t allow myself to dream. At least, not in front of this group of people I had just gotten to know. So I answered with a cop-out, fell into that repetitive answer of oh I want to be a writer. Maybe be a journalist for a magazine or newspaper. Write novels on the side. You know, just write.
How did I come default to journalist and/or writer? There’s this pressure to answer the question “What are you gonna do with your life?” with something, anything, even when it’s an answer you don’t fully believe in yourself.
I don’t know, doesn’t fly.
So I say I want to write because heck, it was the thing I was most good at, at the time, and I even enjoyed it. And if I’m being honest, it was probably the closest thing I’ve ever had to a passion.
Instagram post dated January 19, 2017:
“I hate writing.” actually saying those words aloud came as a surprise. it wasn’t surprising that I meant them but more that I could say them aloud without feeling bad about it. it’s merely a statement of fact at this point. there’s nothing glamorous about writing. my first exposure to the idea of writers were of quiet recluses and tortured introspective souls who live on after some great epiphany, mental breakdown or commit suicide… yeah not the best image for a preteen to look up to.[…] writing is solitary and isolating, it’s just you and your thoughts, giving your all to make something out of nothing. why do I write? maybe I started out liking it. maybe at some point I even loved it, because I was good at it, because it was the one thing I could certainly say was mine. now? it’s a means to an end. I write out of habit more than anything. I hate writing, I say out loud. yet somehow my hands still put words onto the page. funny how that works, huh?
Passion is the narrative we are constantly being fed; the one sure-fire way we’ve been told will make us successful and/or happy. Follow your passion, the world screams at you. If you don’t you’re doing yourself and your life a disservice.
I hate how boxed in being passionate makes me feel. Because my “current” passion is to write, that that is all I’ll ever get to be a writer. We’re often forced to choose to focus on one thing. You can’t be a dancer and an expert theoretical physicist, right? But the choice that passion demands is a false predicament. There are people who do a combination of highly-skilled things. I’ve heard of them. Maybe as kids, we simply don’t hear enough of them.
Being labelled as a writer also comes with the connotation of being “artistic” and while that doesn’t necessarily mean the opposite of intellectual it refers to a specific type of intellect, the humanities-based kind. I spent so much time, having to navigate through other people’s limited perception of me. Like the instances when people are so surprised that I’m into the sciences and get good grades in maths and physics or chemistry.
I didn’t think that’d be the type of thing you’d be good at, they’d say. And I started getting a bit of a thrill from proving people wrong.
If the world was telling me that you can’t do all these things, you can’t be all these people at once, I wanted to be the one to ask, Why the hell not? This has made me stubborn and ambitious and arguably very impatient. If I’m going to do all the things I set out to do, if I’m going to leave a legacy, I better get started. So I rush, I live like I’m running out of time.
“She told him, ‘You know you’re never gonna leave a legacy when you die, right? Because to leave a legacy you need to focus on one thing and you just haven’t had that kind of focus in your life.'” — Elizabeth Gilbert from her talk, “The Flight of the Hummingbird: The Curiosity-Driven Life”
So I want things. I can’t believe how hard it has become to allow myself to admit that, even to myself. Perhaps wanting things and being entitled is a luxury I deny myself purely out of a nagging belief that I haven’t done anything to deserve what I want.
And goddamnit I want things. I want so many things, I want too many things. I want them so bad that it hurts.
But there was no reason for it to hurt in the first place.
In her talk for Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sessions, Elizabeth Gilbert “speaks against passion” and calls instead for us to follow our curiosity.
“Curiosity is a gentler, kinder, more humane instinct than passion. And it’s so much more accessible.”
My life thus far has not been the straight, narrow path that passion often carves out for us. It started out not out of choice, but by circumstance. I didn’t ask to be born in the Philippines, in the same way I had no choice in the decision to move to Indonesia (if I did, I never would’ve left). From then on though, I threw my life into chaos of my own accord. Moved from country to country, city to city. Eventually, chaos became something I was accustomed to. And yes, while those changes were partly fuelled by panic (ohmygosh I don’t like where I am and I don’t want to be stuck here so let’s leave like right now) it was also driven by curiosity (I wonder what the grass is like on the other side?)
When I was younger, I used to hate how complicated my life seemed. How the mere question of “Where are you from?” sent me into a momentary panic and identity crisis. I would’ve given anything to turn back time and just had a “normal” and “stable” childhood. But then I realized how much perspective that instability has granted me. I look at the world through a more nuanced lens.
“The world is divided into two kinds of people; there are the jackhammers and the hummingbirds. Jackhammers are people like me, you put a passion in our hands and we don’t look up, we don’t veer, we’re focused on that until the end of time. And it’s efficient, you get a lot done. But we tend to be obsessive and fundamentalist and sometimes a little difficult and loud.”
So now that I’ve had a taste of how much the world has to offer, I do want more. And while my itchy feet want to take me as far as they can go, I’m also being asked to consider a future which, for some reason, comes with the implication of settling down. Be an adult, think about getting a job.
Part of me does want that. Wants to get her own place in a bustling city. Wants the comfort of a routine, of coming home to the same room, sleeping in the same bed. Wants the luxury of being able to fully unpack her bags without worrying about accumulating things she will eventually have to give away. Wants to find something, one thing, to hold on to and never let go. Wants the now and what I have to feel like enough.
But most of me, wants novelty. Wants to follow her “whims” and “impulses” and see where that takes her. Wants to indulge in that list of a million different things I can do, and check things off that list simply because I want to be able to say Well, I tried that. What’s next? Wants to believe in the endless potential of the individual so much—my endless potential—that I want to come alive and be brimming with the life force of a thousand suns. Wants things to never feel like it’s enough.
“Hummingbirds spend their lives doing it very differently. They move from tree to tree, from flower to flower, from field to field, trying this, trying that. And two things happen. They create incredibly rich, complex lives for themselves. And they also end up cross-pollinating the world. That is the service you do if you are a hummingbird person. You bring an idea from here to over here where you learn something else and you weave it in, and you take it to next thing you do. Your perspective keeps the entire culture aerated and mixed up and open to the new and fresh.”
There is a singularity to our lives. This idea that each person has a unique life, a distinct combination of outer and inner worlds. I’ll never know what it’s like to be a boy growing up in Finland or a girl living through The French Revolution. While there is a certain to beauty to that, it does mean that my life has limitations too. And as much as I want experience everything the world has to offer, not everything is possible.
But that’s not going to stop me from trying to lead a life that makes the most of it.
—Karin Novelia, “Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.” [Sylvia Plath]
Links to cool things:
- My original post The Lives That We Lead. I wrote this when I was 15 or so and while that post explored how we can live multiple lives through words, connections and stories, this post is a focused exploration on how one person can do multiple things with their one life hence the (Reprise) part of the title. Just seeing the way I write as compared to back then is mind-blowing. We’ve come a long way, folks.
- Sarah Kay’s TED talk, How many lives can you live? Her other talk, If I should have a daughter… though not exactly relevant, is beautifully delivered and touches upon the power of words and connections. It was the talk that introduced me to spoken word poetry and inspired me try my own hand at it as well.
- Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk The Flight of the Hummingbird: The Curiosity-Driven Life. Recommend watching the full talk, especially if the word passion make you anxious and you have yet to make peace with the convolutedness of life.
- Emilie Wapnick’s TED talk, Why some of us don’t have one true calling. It’s one of the less anecdotal talks where Emilie, who is a life coach, essential boils down the concept by giving non-passion driven people a name, “multipotentialites” (mouthful, I know), and explaining our capabilities in 3 superpowers.