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NOTES FROM A NOT-SO-QUICK CHANGE ARTIST

Unless you have lived a life of crime, gotten caught and suddenly converted to Christianity in hopes the judge will spare you a long prison sentence, personal transformation does not happen overnight. Yet, to read the cover of any women’s magazine today you would think it so.  At a certain age, we learn to be suspicious of easy 1-2-3 makeovers and 30-day miracle diets.

Oprah knows things “for sure,” and has a nice piece in the back of every issue that explains them to us. We’re not so sure.

What we do know is that we don’t know how to get to that new place, the intersection between yearning and calling, that idea of ourselves that never quits us. We also know that time is getting short. Sure, we have great credentials for things we no longer want to do, but we’re getting a little too long in the tooth to squeeze our soft, well-rounded pegs into square, rigid holes just for the money or benefits.

What we yearn to become is more of who we are deep inside. So what if what we actually do for a living doesn’t fit us anymore?

Are we expecting too much to want the work we do 50 hours a week to fit us like a glove rather than a pair of tiny, scratchy wool mittens with strings attached? Strings that feel like a noose around our necks?

I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember.  In second grade I wrote a poem about a clay lion—the words long lost to me now—but it had something to do with the fragility of pride and vanity. It may have been the best poem I’ve ever written, at least if I am to believe Mrs. Benjamin.  Like a nervous hummingbird—as a child, then as a teenager and young adult—I’d go back to the exotic nectar of the page, but, afraid of being less than perfect at writing, I kept flitting away to more “practical” vocations and less practical distractions I thought would make me happy.

After taking a few writing and literature courses in college, I decided to enter journalism school, where creativity was serfdom to the tyrannical glory of Fact.

I discovered, but could not yet articulate, that I was in love with only the last, most elusive of the five W’s: Why?

I took the advertising sequence out of a thirst for creative expression, and because, on the heels of Watergate, the students in News seemed just a little too caught up in The Great Gotcha. While I admired their ambition, I couldn’t imagine  wearing the armor of that thick skin.

After graduation, one job led to another and I wound up in marketing, then product development. I worked for a U.S. manufacturer of kitchen appliances, moving up the ladder and around the world as more and more of our innovations were exported to China to be produced. I want to say that—as a company, a culture, a country—we were clueless about what we were losing to shave a dollar off a toaster with a resettable bagel switch, or a scorch-proof clothes iron, but that would be false.  Believing in the free enterprise imperative we wrestled with it ineffectually, if at all.  We pretended and denied and saw the glass half full, winning huge, lip-smacking, transient business deals with Wal-Mart as our factories shuttered, one by one, and the little towns they supported dried up.

I comforted myself with the knowledge that those business decisions were not mine—I didn’t wield that kind of power. I made a good salary. My work afforded me a life of travel and a (mercurial) feeling of success.

I was putting food on the table and a roof over my family—not a small achievement—and living the American Dream as it was sold to me from the time I was a tiny tot. But I never stopped wondering how much my work really mattered.

After years of internal conflict I finally admitted to myself what I had known all along:  My work didn’t matter enough.

And that’s when it started happening.  I began to see how what I knew about product development could be applied to personal development. The former starts with wondering, drawing on cocktail napkins, drafting, tinkering in 3-D, then testing and failing with imperfect prototypes. If the concept is found to have value, at some point (most inventors and all perfectionists hate this) we have to let our ideas be made and released into the world.

It’s hard to make a living out of wondering, but that is what I am doing now, at 58, by returning to writing. I hope you will wonder with me. What if we give in to our yearnings?

Like any quest worth pursuing, the path to calling is strewn with obstacles, both real and imagined. For me, writing has always been about telling the unvarnished truth, yet doing so violates the ladylike code programmed into women of my generation:  discretion and good manners.  What price am I—are we—willing to pay for our obedience?

As time marches on in its relentless goosestep, loss and regret leave none of us unscathed. In spite of this (or because of it) there is always hope; hope that we can make this second half or third or one hundredth of the lives we have left matter. The question is, how can we frame our pasts constructively and move forward with our human prototypes in a way that holds purpose, meaning, passion and value?

Even (and especially) now, we have every right and reason to ask ourselves the questions that would be more convenient to keep skirting:  What will I be when I grow up? What will I give to the world?

Reinvention of the self is not so different from product development. It progresses in little, imperfect chunks. It’s slow and messy. It takes a dream to start—and bravery, a touch of stubborn denial, and practice to see through. At times we will come to a place where we need to discard what doesn’t work and begin again. We will be tested. We will have to let go of perfection. It will take longer than we think.

When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’

–Erma Bombeck

Holly Smith-Berry
Holly Smith-Berry
Like you, I’m a shape shifter, living as many roles as an umbrella has spokes: marketing exec, entrepreneur, parent, daughter, friend, sister, yogi, writer. Most of my career I’ve worked in the Housewares Industry developing new products. Sometimes I’ve taken them all the way from the gleam in an inventor’s eye to America’s kitchens.
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