Asking Not Asking #1: Lost At Sea
TINA ESSMAKER / Creative Coach
The last couple of years have been strange for me. The best way I can think to describe them is that I've been slowly drifting out to sea, further and further away from the energy and curiosity and creativity I’ve been known for my entire life. Instead of daydreaming, I stare off blankly into space. Instead of spending my weekends reading and writing like I used to, I spend them cleaning the house, doing crosswords, and napping. I don’t have the desire to be creative. I’m uninspired. I feel bored and boring.
This is very unlike me. In college, I worked harder than my peers and did my very best. As a young professional, I was so curious and motivated that I started side projects and developed new hobbies regularly. My coworkers were impressed by my abilities despite my inexperience. Peers who read essays I wrote for fun enjoyed them and told me to write more. I spent hours at the library poring over books on topics I was interested in. I never thought twice about learning something new or writing down what I observed. I worked on personal projects simply because I enjoyed it.
I deeply miss this person I used to be. I feel like she’s still there but that I’ve misplaced her. I’m not sure if I’m burnt out, functionally depressed, tired, jaded, self-conscious, or just getting older… Maybe a combination of a few, or all of the above. I’ve considering finding a life coach to help me navigate the fog so that I can rekindle my passions or at least take a step towards finding a new one, but I’m scared that no amount of outside support or pep talks will shake me out of this stale life I’m living. What do I do?
- Lost At Sea
Dear Lost At Sea,
You are still that person. She is there inside of you, because she is you. But it sounds like some detective work might be required. You say you miss the person you used to be, but my question for you is who are you currently and who do you want to become? You cannot go back. You can only start where you are and move forward.
Do you drink coffee? Imagine you wake up, make your way to the kitchen, and brew the most delicious coffee. You open the cabinet, pull out a mug, and fill it with that dark-colored liquid. But there’s a problem: as you lift the cup to your lips, you notice cracks in the porcelain big enough to allow the coffee to spill out. It’s pouring out on all sides, and as quickly as you try to drink it, the majority of coffee ends up on the kitchen floor.
The coffee is your energy and the cracks are the drains. In coaching, there’s a foundational exercise that asks you to assess what is draining your energy and then decide what you are going to do about it. How do you spend your energy right now? What drains you? Take out your notebook and make a list. From your letter, it sounds like a large amount of energy is spent on grieving the person you used to be and thinking about how to get her back.
Look at your list again. How many of the items that drain you are out of your control? Cross them off. You can’t do anything about them. Now you have a list of items that you can do something about. You have a few choices: do nothing and allow the item to drain you, choose to let it go, complete it if you have the resources, or delegate it if that’s an option.
I’ll give you an example. When I moved into my apartment the bulb in my bedroom was burnt out. I didn’t have a new bulb, and I assumed the fixture was too high to reach without a ladder. Instead, I used lamps. Months later I was tired of wasting mental energy on that bulb every time I walked into my bedroom. So I bought a bulb, stood on my bed with arm stretched out and, lo and behold, the fixture was within reach!
It sounds like you are in that place now. You’ve thought about your situation long enough, and while you’re not sure what will help, you are ready to act. You said you worry that no amount of outside support or pep talks will shake you out of this stale life—you’re right. Outside support might help, but this is an inside job. You’re the detective, and the light bulb replacer, and you will have to do the work. But it might not be as out of reach as you think.
As an aside, if you are concerned that you are depressed, I strongly urge you to speak to a professional as that’s not my area of expertise and I’m not qualified to address your mental health. Sometimes doing the work includes seeking the support of trained professionals who can guide you in the ways you need.
Now, I want to go back to that cracked coffee mug. Imagine you patch it up and it is smooth all around—no more cracks. Fill it back up and enjoy your morning cup of coffee. Okay, feeling refreshed? Good. I want you to make another list. You already wrote down the things that drain you, but what fills you up? Jot them down. Writing, following your curiosity, researching, and learning used to fill you up. Do they still?
When you are lost at sea, finding your way back to familiar land can seem nearly impossible. Today we use GPS on our phones to navigate the world, but before advanced technology existed, the stars were used as a guide. The star used to determine latitude was Polaris, or the North Star. Some people think it’s fixed, but it isn’t. It moves, but because it’s almost exactly above Earth’s northern axis, it appears to remain in the same position. This is important, Lost At Sea, because we change, too. We move apartments, accept new jobs, build relationships and then mourn their loss. We are interested in science and then art. We learn new hobbies and replace them with newer hobbies.
Our lives ebb and flow, shifting below us, like the water you are sailing on now. But in every season of our lives, we can look up and see that glowing dot in the sky, pointing us north. What is your North Star, the thing—or things—that guide you home, give you a sense of purpose, and bring you joy? I encourage you to look up and see them in your life. Let them guide you.
If you’re unsure or have forgotten, you might need to play detective to uncover your guiding stars through discovery and experimentation, starting with the things that pique your curiosity. And if you believe you have to be passionate about something before you try it, listen to this Freakonomics podcast episode entitled “How to Get More Grit in Your Life.” It’s a challenge to rethink the need to be passionate at the onset, and how, instead, we can develop passion over time as we build skills and nurture grit in our lives.
Maybe it’s not about going back to where you came from, but about finding new land—a land that you have chosen. You mentioned things you were known for, how you worked harder than your peers, and your coworkers being impressed. But it’s okay to set aside the expectations of others and allow yourself to create the life you want. Perhaps you are not really lost at sea, but charting a new course to a life that is hard-won, but fully yours.
To helming your life,
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Asking Not Asking is a bi-monthly column written by Tina Essmaker, a New York City-based coach, speaker, and writer who helps others live into their possibility. To be considered for the column, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with a short note about where you're at and where you want to be, and make sure to include the following:
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