The world is a beggar rooting in your backpack

Wondering what to do next? Ask what the world wants

Published February 15, 2011 6:30PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I feel somewhat guilty even writing to you; you seem to have excellent insight into many people's problems, and should you choose to answer my letter, would someone more desperately in need not have their letter answered? I am probably writing this (as I suspect many who write to you are) more to get my thoughts down than anything. In any event, I think that your thoughts would be incredibly valuable to me.

I'm 25, I have a master's degree, a fantastic job (in an albeit less than fantastic geographic area) and I'm doing work that I like with people I enjoy. On top of that, I've a family that supports me in everything I do. I am single, though I'm mostly OK with that at this point in my life.

The problem is that I'm terrified of getting stuck. I don't want this job to be my career. I don't want this town to be my home. I don't want to wake up and realize I'm 40 years old and haven't really done anything.

I feel a fierce sense of urgency calling me to create something, to do or make something meaningful, to the point where I can't sleep. I just can't seem to find the outlet.

I'm not an artist. I have never felt (nor do I now) compelled by the visual arts. I used to be a musician, but I haven't touched my instrument in years.

I feel like writing could be the trick. I'm not one for fiction. Though I do read it, I don't believe I understand people well enough to have any idea where to begin creating a character.

I could write nonfiction (I suppose anyone can write nonfiction), but I have no idea how one gets a start in that racket. And even then, I have no idea if that's the outlet I'm looking for, it's just the most plausible one so far.

I just feel like something is bottled up inside of me. The phrase that comes first to mind is "creative energy" though I fear it's been there so long it is turning into something more noxious.

It's affecting my life in negative ways. I used to be an incredibly jovial person ... I haven't been for some time now. I have less interest in other people. I just want to figure out what it is I need to do.

Thanks for listening,

Hoping for Insight

Dear Hoping for Insight,

Change the way you listen to this urge. Try to hear it as a request, not as a desire. It is a request from outside you for something you may be carrying. The world doesn't know what you are carrying. Or maybe it doesn't know quite how to ask for it. But it wants something from you.

Consider this: The world approaches you like an ugly beggar and begins pawing through your backpack. So you resist. The world wants something. It just doesn't have a very nice way of going about it. It grabs for things you think are sacred. You resist. It grabs for things you think are worthless. You resist. You say, that's worthless, you don't want that. But the world keeps pawing through your backpack.

You may or may not have what the world is asking for. So you say, Back off, world. Here, let me produce in an orderly fashion the things that are in my backpack and let's find out which thing you want.

You start producing what is in your backpack. Is it this that you want? That?

The world does not speak your language. It makes gestures.

You have to understand the world. It might not want what you think it should want. In my case, for instance, I persist in believing that I know what the world should want but what the world has asked me to do is to be a good copy editor so I have been a good copy editor. For a while the world asked me to be a rock journalist and before that a musician, but then the world got tired of seeing me do those things. I was only mildly interesting to the world in those roles. Then it turns out there is an opening for something unexpected. The world says here, be an advice columnist. I'm like, WTF? But I have learned to be of service. I could say I'd been wasting my life. Or I could say I'd been preparing.

We wait for openings. We spend our lives in the wings. But if we make ourselves available, we are sometimes shoved out onto the stage.

We make ourselves available. We learn the skills we may need if an opening occurs. We cannot force the world to open. We wait our turn. Sometimes we think we are ready but we don't look ready to the world. It says, I don't think you're ready yet. We say, You have no idea how ready I am but the world already is not even listening to us; it has turned its attention elsewhere and the moment is gone so we go back to our endless preparations.

The world can be fickle and hard to understand. We're like that, too, are we not? We think we will be interested in something but when we get it home it isn't as interesting as we expected it to be. We try things. The world tries things. It takes us to the store and says, here, try this on. No, that's not it. How about that? It can get tiring but we're not the one with the credit card.

The world may not want what you think is your greatest talent. So we learn that we are not the best judge of what we have to offer. We learn that if we simply adopt a posture of service, the world will let us know. It will let us know by hiring or firing us, by injuring us or instilling us with energy, by dropping us off on desolate roads, by throwing us in with vagabonds and truckers, by arranging for us to attend Harvard, by managing the weather to delay the flight to Cincinnati so we meet someone pretty and unexpectedly candid who guides us to a lepidopterist. Or to a chiropractor. Who knows.

Shift your perspective. You're not running the show.

What we express does not originate inside us. What we express we pass on. We borrow. We are conduits. This yearning, this is not from inside you. It is your response to an invitation. Or you might say it is a pressure differential rooted externally. The world is trying to pull something out of you. Let the world pull this thing out of you. Let the world act on you.

The future is unknowable. If it's in the right direction, that's often good enough.

If there are lights on the horizon that attract you, start walking toward them.

Wondering what the world wants from you? Maybe this book will help.

SYA cover

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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