Below is a condensed transcription of the main points of Gretchen Rubin’s brilliant talk on ‘drift’. I left out some of the stories she tells in the interest of space. To hear the whole talk go here. Gretchen’s site is The Happiness Project.
Gretchen Rubin @ 5×15 New York
I’m going to tell you the story about how I drifted into law as a career, and how I pulled myself out of drift and changed from being a lawyer to being a writer.
What is drift? Drift is the decision you make by not deciding or by making decisions that unleash consequences for which you don’t take responsibility.
You want to please the people around you or avoid a fight or a bout of insecurity, so you take the easier path. You take a job because someone offers you that job. You get married because everyone around you is getting married. You go to medical school because both your parents are doctors. That’s drift. Drift can happen at any age and in any aspect of our lives.
I fear drift.
Drift feels small, but it is a powerful, almost unstoppable force.
In my case I drifted into law school. I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I was good at research and writing. I figured it would be a useful, legitimate way to spend a couple of years. It would keep my options open. I really didn’t think much about it.
Just taking one drifting step is often enough to start you on a course that’s very hard to alter.
In my case I drifted into taking the LSAT.
Drift does not mean taking the easier course. The word drift has overtones of ease or laziness. Not true. Drift is often disguised by huge amounts of effort and perseverance. Just because you’re working hard does not mean that you are not drifting.
I drifted into law, and it was hard every step of the way from the LSAT to my property final to the New York state bar exam.
Here’s the funny thing. I’m happy I went to law school and became a lawyer. I went to Yale law school and got a great education. I met my husband.
And that’s the tricky thing about drift. Sometimes it makes you happy.
But don’t count on it.
(on clerking for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor) And I had to admit I didn’t spend one single minute on law more than I had to. I did everything I had to do to do an excellent job, and not one thing more. And that made me different from my co-clerks. They were reading law journals on the weekends. They were talking about cases in our lunch hour. They were energized by their efforts. And I wasn’t.
And I began to think, what if I could do for work what I do in my free time?
Why did it take me so long to think about becoming a writer? Because if I look back on my life I did many, many, many things to prepare myself to be a writer. For one thing I have a very hard time with what I call my resolution now- to ‘Be Gretchen’.
I have an idea of the way I wish I were. And it sometimes obscures my understanding of who I actually am. I pretend even to myself to enjoy activities that I don’t enjoy, like shopping. Or to be interested in subjects that I’m not really interested in, like fiscal policy. And even more dangerous, I ignore my true interests and my true desires.
That is an attitude of mind that makes a person very susceptible to drift. But I was lucky. For me the desire to write became so overpowering that I couldn’t ignore it, and I couldn’t resist it. I came to a point where I knew I would rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer.
It’s very uncomfortable to admit to yourself that you’re drifting.
So how do you catch yourself in drift? Ask yourself if you answer yes to any of these.
- I often have the peculiar feeling that I’m living someone elses life.
- I spend a lot of time daydreaming about a completely different life as an escape from what I’m doing now.
- I find myself getting very angry if someone challenges the values that I think I’m working toward. I’m working like crazy as a fifth year associate, and I get angry when someone suggests that money and security aren’t important.
- I fantasize that some catastrophe or upheaval will blow up my situation. I’ll break my leg or get transferred to another city.
- I find myself having disproportionate reactions. I have a friend who went back to acting because she was in a conversation with a bunch of people about acting and she started crying.
- I feel like other people or processes are moving events forward and I’m just being carried along.
- I find myself doing or wanting something because the people around me are doing or wanting it.
- There’s something in my life about which I used to be passionate, but now I never allow myself to indulge in it. In fact, it makes me uncomfortable even to think about it.
- I’ve justified certain actions by assuring myself ‘I might as well’, ‘It can’t hurt’, ‘This might be useful’, ‘This will keep my options open’, ‘I can always decide later’, ‘I can always change my mind’, ‘Nothing’s forever’, ‘How bad can it be?’
Leaving law is the most important step I have taken in my life to ‘Be Gretchen’.
It comes back as always to a fundamental truth about happiness: To be happy I have to know myself, accept myself, and build a life on the foundation of my own nature, and I couldn’t drift my way there.
To hear Gretchen’s talk in it’s entirety go here.
Are you drifting? Have you ever been drifting and pulled yourself out of it? What helped you to do this? Leave a comment below!