On the bulletin board in my home office, there is a clipping from the Wall Street Journal that has yellowed and curled up at the edges. It is a profile of a home for sale, with photos and a brief interview with the owner. An Old Town Alexandria, VA Federal-style mansion, the owner was selling it because her husband had died and her children had moved on to their own lives. Her garden, a centerpiece in the annual tour of homes, was a big selling point, and the owner was quoted as saying that the garden was the thing she would miss most about the house.
When asked by the WSJ what she would not miss about the home, the owner answered, “The squirrels.” They had tormented her for years, she said, eating her flowers and wreaking havoc in her carefully planned and painstakingly maintained Eden. When the reporter pointed out that she was moving to a new home only a few miles away, and thus there was a great likelihood that squirrels would also be there, the homeowner replied, “Yes, but they will be different squirrels.”
I love the ridiculousness of this logic, which I’m sure the owner herself fully recognized. It is a reminder of how beneficial it can be to change just one factor in the equation of our lives, in order to get closer to the results we’re looking for.
Change is a good thing, the currency of innovation. Corporations now encourage frequent lateral moves within an organization, to increase employees’ exposure to the company and broaden their skill set, and sabbaticals, once a reward for years of slogging away in academia, are increasingly seen as crucial to revitalizing research and reenergizing scholarship. Gone are the days when a man retired after fifty years of doing the same work, and went home with his gold watch to putter in the garage and await death — and that’s a very good thing. Most of the people I know in their sixties and seventies are on their second, third or fourth incarnation, discovering interests and aptitudes they never knew they possessed and drawing on decades of experience to tackle new challenges.
Two of my closest friends, a husband and wife team, moved last month to a state that — I can say with 100% certainty — neither of them had ever before considered visiting, much less living in. They’ve had a lot of changes in the past couple years — some welcome, most not — but I have a tremendous sense of optimism about their move, a feeling of certainty that they are both entering a new era of their lives in which they are coming into alignment with exactly what they are meant to be doing. I can’t explain why I feel this way, but I do, deeply, and I’m excited for them both.
But the unfolding of their new lives required a huge willingness to say YES on their part, because change, for all of its inherent benefits, can be extraordinarily frightening. Saying yes can be the hardest thing in the world. And sometimes we’re so bogged down in what we’re doing — managing families, maintaining homes, fighting squirrels — that we lose sight entirely of the world around us, so focused are we on the pavement under our feet.
Remember this guy, Eddie the Eagle? Back home, he plastered walls for a living, had no team, no sponsorship, and no high-tech equipment other than his Coke-bottle glasses, but at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Canada, he represented England in the ski jump, the first time the country had ever competed in that sport. Aided by the Austrian and Italian ski jump teams who, when he arrived in Calgary, took mercy on him and gave him decent skis and a helmet, Eddie stood up at the top of the jump, his very presence a paragraph in the record books. I remember watching him as he prepared to launch himself into the ether, holding my breath — not because I hoped he would shock the world by capturing the gold, but because I hoped he would survive. And he did, jumping, as Franz Lidz recalled in Smithsonian Magazine last year, and “plummeting to the ground like a dead parrot.”
Since then, Eddie the Eagle has opened a lot of shopping centers, appeared sporadically in the tabloids, toured with a Finnish heavy metal band, had some plastic surgery, and attended law school. The money he earned from his notoriety is long gone, and the Olympics powers-that-be instituted a minimum distance requirement to bar any wannabe Eddies from emerging from, say, Djibouti or Eritrea, to steal attention away from the athletes who’ve devoted their lives to their sport. There’s an Eddie the Eagle movie in theaters now, though, so there’s probably also a deal in the works to license his likeness and earn the Eagle some cash. One can only hope he didn’t represent himself in the negotiations.
For many, the story of Eddie the Eagle is ridiculous, and nothing more — and I will concede that there is certainly a great deal of the absurd woven into his life. But at the end of the day, this plasterer from England said YES to pursuing his dream, and there is something very admirable in that. He changed the trajectory of his life by being willing to look foolish and fail. In front of the entire world. But perhaps there are easier ways to revitalize our lives than risking them, better ways to reconnect to our interests than hurtling off a nearly-400 foot ski jump? [Or maybe that is your passion, in which case, go for it, as soon as you update your life insurance.]
My favorite interview question, which I posed in every business profile I ever wrote, was “What did you want to be when you grew up?” The answers were always funny: the CEO who wanted to play baseball, the ad exec who wanted to be a professional fisher(wo)man, the international business owner who wanted to be a backup singer. The best part of these answers, however, was what inevitably came up next — the creative ways these people had managed to work their dreams into their wildly successful lives: the rec league baseball team, the monthly bass fishing trips, the church choir.
It takes guts to play shortstop as an adult, the same way it took guts for my mom’s friend to walk into a ballet studio in Washington, D.C. at the age of 60 and inquire whether there were “classes for old ladies.” But guess what? There were classes, and she took them for years, and in addition to improving her balance and posture and flexibility, my mom’s friend rediscovered a joy that had been dormant since childhood. The payoff for her willingness to look foolish was huge.
So consider this: maybe it’s time to put one toe out there, by changing a small thing in your life. Perhaps it will be as easy as sketching while you watch the evening news, taking a class, writing a story, reconnecting with an old friend, attempting a new language, painting, playing baseball, picking up a racket — and seeing what the payoff is. Maybe your life will require something much larger. But if you dare to remember what it was you used to want to be, and then take a step in that direction, at the very least, you’ll be battling new squirrels.