For the past six months I’ve been incredibly stuck in my professional life—unsure of where to go next, and, worst of all, deeply unsure of myself.
Six months of rejection after rejection, of applying for things that “almost” work out and then don’t. Of people dangling an opportunity between your eyes and then disappearing. Of people seeing you up close and saying no thank you.
I was stuck, unsure how to move forward, and deeply and scarily doubting whether all I had tried so far was worth it.
I doubted the idea that trying hard worked at all. Perhaps it was all luck and external circumstance. Why bother then? I was dancing with cynicism. I was trying on jaded. I was flirting with bitterness.
Here is the proof, an excerpt from my personal journal on October 23, 2015, written after a big relentless wave of no’s and rejections:
“I’ve lost heart. I’ve lost hope. It feels like trying is pointless…. I feel like the only option is to go numb, stop trying. The world is unfair and it doesn’t reward trying and persistence and following the rules. It’s ruthless. Nothing is working…. I don’t know how or why to try anymore… I want to stop all of this. I want to be bitter. What’s the point? Seriously? I don’t understand.
I have no more fight left this time… You know what world, YOU WIN! I’m DONE. And OK, so deep down you know I don’t mean that, but that’s how I feel. Devastated.”
I had learned enough from interviewing 120 people about a dream they achieved to know that when you’re feeling this way it’s OK to take a break. To “give up” for a little bit and see how you feel—are you desperate to get back to it or is there something else you should try? I took the advice and began to take a break, began to release the pressure, the expectation.
I decided to find other ways to gain a sense of forward movement, outside of my professional life. I moved to a new townhome. I got rid of a bunch of stuff. I dyed the bottom half of my hair. I applied for a PhD. I planted my first garden with lettuce, tomatoes and basil. And I got my first puppy.
I also took a break from my normal reading habits. I replaced all those non-fiction books and biographies I usually love—the ones that were all of a sudden starting to make me feel inadequate instead of empowered—with books about raising and training a puppy.
During one of these puppy-preparation reading sessions, I had an epiphany. I wrote about it in this journal entry on November 27, 2015:
“All this time what had me wrecked most of all was doubting the very principle of sowing and hard work. I was doubting seeds even grew, in their core function, just because some external things had battered my garden, just because of a freeze.’
“But here’s the thing I’ve just learned: Seeds do grow. That’s how seeds operate. There’s a lot that can go wrong, but none of that changes what a seed was made to do. What it can do.
“I’m starting to realize that if you plant lettuce, it grows taller. That happens. If you train a puppy to sit, he will sit. Lay down. Roll over. Walk with you. If you keep writing every day you will become a writer.”
Related: ‘What You Think, You Become’
During the worst bouts of rejection and failure and depression, the lie that threatened to stop me was this: Seeds are stones; growth is a lie.
Then my tomato plant got taller, its vines slowly using the support lattice I’d built to climb upwards. And a month later, a fluffy puppy would take his mouth off its leaves when I said “drop it.” Then he’d sit, look up at me with those dreamy eyes and wait for me to tell him what to do next.
There are days when I have to repeat the same thing to my puppy 100 times before he gets it, and I collapse when he finally decides it’s naptime, feeling dizzy from the repetition.
But then he wakes up and comes when I call his name. And slowly, I start to believe again. Not expect, or even believe in any particular outcome. But I start to believe in growth. I start to believe that trying hard is the only way to know for sure what you’re capable of.
Seeds grow. Puppies learn. Effort yields growth.
There are of course still a million things that can go wrong, a million external circumstances outside of my control. But what if I can grow from those things, too?
My tomato plant is withering from the recent freeze, still barely holding up three little green tomatoes that may never turn red. But somehow, I delight in them all the same, remembering when they were just tiny yellow flowers that came from a seed.