In his famous commencement speech, Steve Jobs urged the Stanford graduating class of ’05 to look back in order to connect the dots that led to where they are. So in advising students who are on the precipice of their adult lives, it is ironic that one of the most forward thinking minds should remind them to look back instead of forward.
I’ve always prided myself on not being caught up in the past, being able to make clean breaks, focusing on the future, etc. I think a part of me is afraid to look back and connect the dots because I won’t like what those dots say about me. That as much as it pains me I have to admit that one denominator in the patterns that have led me here is fear. In going back to connect the dots, I automatically go back to an event in my early childhood. I am three years old, out with my parents and younger sister strolling along a a seaside boardwalk on a carefree summer night. One minute I’m holding my father’s hand and the next, I am alone in a sea of strange faces. For reasons I can’t explain, I isolate myself instead of seeking help. I am terrified in a dark alley by the time a group of revelers en route to a party or disco find me and take me back to my family. My father is smiling, taking me into his arms and it’s the happiest feeling until I look at my mother’s face and see not relief that I am found but fear and panic. She spends the rest of the night blaming my father for letting go of me. As is often the case, our earliest experiences and the meanings we attach to them set up our way of thinking and behavior for years to come. For me, I interpreted the world as a relatively safe place, with kind people to help you out of trouble. But it also gave me a darker perspective. A feeling that if you were not careful (or very lucky) you could be hurt and cause the most important people in your life (my mother) grief and pain. I don’t know why I would choose this as my first dot but there it is. From that point on, the dots I begin to connect make sense. I grow up a happy, curious child who lives adventures vicariously through books and a vivid imagination. In my daydreams, I am always doing amazing feats like saving someone’s life or discovering solutions to big problems like world hunger. In real life, I excel at most of what I do. I am usually at the top of my class, popular but not overly so. The thing is, I have figured out a handful of things that I can safely excel at and focus on only those. If I try something that I’d like to be good at but feels uncomfortable I stay away. In third grade, I spend a few glorious weeks lost in drawing every day. I surprise myself that I can be this creative until a little voice tells me I am not good and then every drawing I attempt is horrible. For a long time, I am convinced that I will be an actress and get a small part in my school play. One day, a teacher makes a joke about my part only requiring me to stand there and one person’s thoughtless comment is enough for me to shelve the actress dream. Even in areas that I excel I hold back on. As if trying too hard, giving too much of myself will make the pain of possible failure worst. In the pivotal years of early adulthood, when I’m in college, I make a choice to change majors. I know that this is very common and studies show most people change their major and their careers many times but for me this is significant and long lasting. Around the same time, I fall in love and have my heart broken in what seems like one step. I learn another lesson: leap with your eyes closed and you will fall flat on your face – hard. This is the same year I fall in love with my husband – strong, handsome – safe.
It’s hard to look back on the last twenty years and feel any twinge of regret By all accounts, I have created and been given a blessed life. Given the chance, I don’t think I would go back and change much. And yet. I can’t help thinking what life would be like if I didn’t hold back so much. What if I’d tried out for a bigger role in the next school play? What if I’d told that boy how I really felt instead of acting like I didn’t care that he decided to go back to his ex-girlfriend. Maybe nothing would be different. Maybe my heart would have still been broken and maybe I would have ended up with a different career that was just as ill-fitting as the one I chose.
But I realize now that maybe going back to connecting the dots isn’t about the past. Connecting the dots, even if they’ve led you to a place you are not happy with makes you ask questions. That the question “What if?” is not the right one but that it will, however, lead you to the One essential question: “What now?”