You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. – Steve Jobs
During my freshman year of college, I set up a meeting with the Dean of Student Affairs at my university. I had been invited to an information session on prestigious fellowships and, being the go-getter that I was, I wanted to follow up with the dean on a couple of points.
See, the information session had stressed the importance of having a compelling narrative, and I felt a little unsure about mine –
On the one hand, I was an immigrant that had always felt out of place in my adopted country, which sparked an interest in migration, cultural identity, and immigration policy.
But, on the other hand, I was returning to Tufts – and the United States – after a gap year during which I had volunteered in relief work, often alongside the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) after the devastating Sichuan Earthquake. This sparked an interest in civil-military relations.
And with just these two bit of information about me, the dean suggested that I pursue civil-military relations; from the perspective of potential fellowship committees, that story arc would be much more interesting.
Though I single him out here, the dean was far from the only source of this advice. It came from all sides.
And I ate it up.
Because of course, it’s the story that matters. It’s not what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. It’s not about the person that you eventually become, but the journey that took you there. Besides, your narrative signals that you’re serious and dedicated, and that you have your whole life story to prove it.
And isn’t that a powerful and empowering idea?
Joseph Campbell famously wrote about the monomyth, or the “hero’s journey” that is prevalent across cultures and across time periods. Campbell’s monomyth has 17 stages that are often divided into three sections: the departure, or the ordinary life adventures before the hero answers the call to action; the initiation, or the true adventures along the way, and the returnto his life with new wisdom and powers acquired.
And your narrative, if you believe you have one, is like your personal monomyth. It means that you’re someone important placed on earth to do big things. It means that everything in your life is leading up to one particular decision, career move, or moment.
But the thing about real-life narrative is that it will never be written by an omniscient author. None of us are all-seeing or all-knowing.
Life and life paths can’t be prescribed in advance – at least not for long. Sooner or later, that perfect story arc will unravel and you’ll have to start over (which, as Seth Godin convincingly argues and I believe, is not a bad thing.)
And that’s where I am today.
I followed the advice of the dean and of countless others and threw myself into my then-passion for civ-mil. My coursework as well as my time away from school was almost exclusively centered around the subject, with a summer research trip to Chile to study post-Pinochet political-military relations and a particularly memorable Christmas break working on a research team with the U.S. military in Afghanistan. I applied for one of those prestigious scholarships with the aim of becoming a leader in the field, and I did not receive it.
Which is OK, because recently, I realized that this was not my life path. I decided to abandon the narrative.
It was not an easy decision. I miss the comfort and the strong sense of purpose that I had when I believed that I had found my life arc. I struggle daily over the “Why?” of what I’m doing, how it fits into my life and my interests, and whether anyone will take me seriously without my back-story to back me up (no pun intended).
And I still obsess over narrative. But I try (sometimes fail) to obsess in a slightly healthier way; rather than connect the dots looking forward, I wonder what they will look like, once connected.