You are so lucky. I hear it all the time. I bet you are thinking it now, looking at my photos. But let me tell you, luck had very little to do with the self-directed life I have created for myself.
Yes, I live in an idyllic place, surrounded by rice fields, within cycling distance of one of Asia’s prettiest World Heritage towns and close enough to the beach for a sunrise swim.
But it’s not due to luck that I am sitting in a hammock today creating the project of my dreams. Luck is what you make it.
The way to my self-directed life was one hell of a bumpy ride
It was no yellow brick road that got me here. My carefully planned sabbatical year – the year I was going to create the long-desired career change for myself – started with the cancer diagnosis of my husband.
My life-changing sabbatical turned into a two-year nightmare of providing palliative care to my dying spouse.
I got sucked under for a very long time, but I managed not to drown in the abyss of grief. When I emerged, I was a changed person. I had learned the hard way, what I needed to learn. It wasn’t luck. It was hard work.
Deep pain and suffering can be your wake-up call
We will all experience grief and loss at some point in our lives. Some of us more than once. The death of a parent, divorce, becoming an empty-nester, a still-born baby, being made redundant. The list is long.
Everybody will have a different journey. But if we open ourselves up to the lessons of loss and suffering, we will come out of it deeply transformed.
Last week I shared some very intimate insights of my healing journey online on a platform that attracts over 2 mio readers. I pressed the send button on my first guest post for Tiny Buddha with my heart in my mouth. It was very scary to reveal my naked self so publicly.
The response to my post confirmed what my heart already knew. By sharing our stories of suffering and what we have learned from it, we can learn from each other and provide comfort. My story is not unique. We will all have to deal with painful experiences in our lives.
If we are open to it, we will understand that deeply painful experiences are precious opportunities for real transformation.
Learn to cultivate positive emotions
I learned that when we cultivate compassion and love, we learn to let go of toxic emotions like jealousy and anger. It is what will make us whole again.
When friends and people I barely know tell me how lucky I am, I hear jealously in their voices.
Maybe I was lucky that I was put face to face with our human mortality and I am grateful for what it taught me. I know that toxic emotions do not serve us.
I learned to treat life as a precious opportunity to find out what we are really called to do with the nanosecond we have on earth. Figure it out and then go for it.
It’s not for sissies
But between the life of our dreams and living it, stands the fear of uncertainty. Living the life of our dreams requires letting go and stepping outside of what we know. And that takes a lot of courage.
In a way I am lucky, because I don’t mind renting out my house on Airbnb, allowing strangers to sleep in my bed, while I live in a modest rented house in Vietnam. Not everybody can live the way I do, with minimal possessions, never sure what will happen next. For me, that was the easy part.
Letting go of your career is harder than it seems
Surprisingly, the hardest part of the journey to reinventing myself, was letting go of my professional identity.
Resigning from my tenured University position after my husband died was a no brainer. I had desired a career-change for a long time, even before he got sick. I had a good job in senior education management. It came with a good salary and a lot of perks, but my heart was no longer in it. After my confrontation with death, I simply couldn’t go back to the life I had lived before. I needed to shed it like a snake sheds its skin.
But I hadn’t been prepared to so feel naked and vulnerable without my professional identity. In our western ‘doing’ cultures we are defined and judged by our work, by our titles and careers and dropping out of a flourishing career is a tough choice. Suddenly you are an outcast, both envied and judged by your peers and family.
For several years after my husband’s death it felt as if I was running on the spot. I no longer had to endure long commutes to work and frustratingly long days in the office, yet every day felt like one long exhausting marathon.
I claimed several new professional identities but none of them fit, because I was doing it for the wrong reasons. I was desperately trying to prove to myself and others that dropping out of my career in mid-life hadn’t been foolish. But I got nowhere with it.
Reinventing yourself is hard work
It starts by listening to your heart
My personal writing practice is where I got the clarity and space necessary to reconnect with my true intention. It allowed me to step out of my head and to listen to the voice of my heart. Only now, with the benefit of hindsight do I realise that I was so exhausted because I was doing inner work. On the outside I seemed unproductive. I didn’t seem to get anywhere with my many projects. But deep inside I was getting some serious work done.
I had no idea it would take this long. To do serious soul work, we need time to sit still and explore, so that we can understand what the next chapter should look like.
Expect to work longer hours than ever before
As anybody who works for themselves will tell you, you end up working harder than ever before. I taught myself how to build a website and I take all of my own photos. There are no down-times from my new job. I hardly go out, I live on a tight budget and my idea of a great weekend is to stay home and work in order to get a couple of blog posts written. And yes, I do get to write my blog posts sitting in a hammock.
Be rewarded with a life you love
Following your heart, stepping away from the life you no longer love to lead the life you want to live is hard work. It has nothing to do with luck. But it’s the most rewarding thing you can do for yourself.
I was inspired to write this post after reading a great guest post on Quiet Writing’s Wholehearted Stories Series which resonated very strongly with my own experience. In her post “Our heart always knows the way” Katherine Bell bravely describes her own experience along the long and lonely road to reinventing yourself professionally.
I would love to hear from you. Maybe you have travelled along this road and have some wisdom to share? Or maybe you are thinking about it but don’t yet know whether to trust your heart? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
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