I grew up with two older sisters. One loved to read and always had a book in her hand, while the other loved to sing and play the piano.
I loved to entertain my family and explore my imagination, writing little skits to amuse myself and others, but as soon as I started school, I felt myself diminish.
I started to compare myself to how my sisters were in school.
One was always getting top marks, and the other was always participating in school musicals or learning an instrument. I started to wonder where my place was in my family because if the academic role was taken and the creative role was taken, what was left for me? What was my identity?
I then started making decisions based on these comparisons.
Nearly every choice I made had me feeling like I was taking a step further away from myself. I wanted to strive and achieve in school because I looked up to my sisters, but when I would receive top marks, or if I took up the saxophone, it would feel hollow, like other people’s reactions to my achievement mattered more than my own.
While one of my sisters went on to pursue a career in academia, the other left school early to try and pursue music. Compared to the confusion I was experiencing, they both seemed to have it all figured out, and by my early twenties, I felt like I had spent my youth trying to follow in their footsteps, comparing my journey to theirs and trying to play catch up.
Growing up, I felt like the real me was screaming to be heard, but I kept ignoring and stifling that call in favour of being what I thought I had to be. I had been denying who I was and what I had once felt passionate and curious about.
I realised that if I was ever going to break away from such a harmful comparison mentality and discover who I was and what I loved to do, I needed to redefine life by my own standards, viewing it as a training ground rather than a checklist to complete.
I needed to accept that, in my own way, in my own time, I would find a pathway to my passions.
And most importantly, I needed to focus on what I had in my life rather than what I didn’t and accept that I was simply different from my sisters and from other people.
Along the road to self-discovery, I was able to make three major mentality shifts. and in doing so, I was able to find my way to my passions and myself.
1. Life Is Not A Checklist, It’s A Training Ground
Upon leaving school, I couldn’t help but notice that every time I caught up with an old friend or met someone new, career chat monopolised every conversation! If I wasn’t being asked “What do you do?”, I was being asked “What do you want to do?”
There seemed to be this massive focus on needing to figure out what my career would be or else my life just wouldn’t make sense.
I would walk away from each one of these conversations feeling small and confused. I would wonder: why does no one care how I am in general? Why is no one asking if I’m feeling happy or sad, peaceful or stressed? Why does it only seem to matter what career I’m pursuing and not how I’m developing as a human being?
I would watch my sisters, friends, and strangers take these seemingly well-thought-out, clear steps towards building a career and a life for themselves, and I would observe within myself a simple thought: ‘I don’t want to do that, yet.’
Everyone seemed to have goals to reach and there I was, wanting to stand completely still.
I didn’t feel this strong urge to approach life like it was some experience that went hand in hand with a checklist or needed to be lived through a rigid ‘goal setting’ mentality. Instead, I wanted to spend time sorting myself out inwardly, exploring my mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing before I decided on what steps I would take outside of myself.
Shifting my whole view on life from being externally focused to being inwardly focused helped me to learn that life isn’t just about working towards a career, making money or getting ahead. I started to see life as a training ground or a school for self-development.
I started to see how every aspect of my life was connected to my mental and emotional wellbeing. If I was having a bad day, everything in that day would inconvenience me, and yet if I was feeling calm, I could have experienced the same traffic, or awkward encounter, or set back and I would have taken it in my stride.
My thoughts impacted my emotions, my emotions impacted my mood, my mood impacted my decisions, my decisions impacted my actions, and my actions impacted my direction in life!
I started to see that life isn’t a checklist, it is more like an interactive, choose-your-own-adventure game. The more I leaned into the knowledge that life itself was teaching me so much, the less I wanted to control that experience. I didn’t need to check anything off a list; I simply needed to be myself and be present exactly where I was.
2. Everyone’s Timeline Is Different
While I was better able to enjoy life by viewing it as a training ground, I still couldn’t help but notice what others were achieving around me. My sisters seemed to be full steam ahead with their careers and I couldn’t help but feel inadequate compared to them, worrying that I was falling far behind in life, just like I felt in childhood.
I wondered if I had the ability to build a successful career for myself by the time I was 30, like it seemed my sisters were on track to do. I would have this thought often, ‘I have to build my career by the time I’m 30!’, and it always made me feel terrible. Once I started noticing how that thought was making me feel, I started to look at the expectation that lay beneath it and questioning it.
Why was it so essential that I built an amazing career by the time I was thirty?
Who made that rule? And why was I following it?
When I reflected on my childhood and my constant comparison to my sisters and peers, I started to find the answers.
We go through a rigorous 12 years of schooling where we’re always striving for material achievements, outcomes, and results. We work to deadlines, stick to syllabuses, and memorise countless pieces of information. The need to be in control, to be ‘in the know’, is ingrained within us. We start to believe that if we’re not constantly achieving and getting quick results, we’re constantly failing.
When I finally understood that my choice to slow down and take my time triggered a feeling of being out of control and a fear of the unknown, I was able to start shifting that mentality.
I began to realise how much I was living my life according to some invisible timeline, afraid to veer into uncertainty and away from an expected path. Because of this, I saw turning 30 as some major life event, and I knew I needed to take steps to view 30 as just another number! I started researching people who kickstarted their careers later in life, such as Julia Child, the world renowned chef. She was working in advertising before deciding to write a cookbook at the age of 50!
She didn’t seem to worry about achieving her dreams young; she was more concerned with achieving her dreams at all!
With this new inspiration, I grew comfortable with the idea of discovering my passions along the way and building a career later in life, accepting that this could happen when I’m 40, 60, or even 80 years old!
I started to see the excitement in uncertainty, that sometimes not knowing what would happen next is a breath of fresh air. This afforded me the opportunity to reassess my expectations, wants, and needs. I no longer felt like I was racing towards some result in order to feel good about myself. Instead, it was about wanting to feel good about myself every step of the way, and I knew that I would get there in my own time, by my own rules.
3. You Have To Give To What You’ve Got
As a teenage girl, I fed myself a steady stream of celebrity culture. I would watch movie after movie, read magazine after magazine, and observe as these beautiful people seemed to achieve so much. They were the ultimate trifecta: rich, carefree, and coveted!
I used to think these celebrities had it all and by comparison, I had nothing.
I brought this mentality into my everyday life, holding an impression that everyone else’s life must be better than my own.
As I grew up and took a step back from the black hole that is celebrity culture, I noticed how often my thoughts would drift towards focusing on other people and comparing myself to them. Each time I did this, and I did so frequently, I would feel a sense of lack. It was like I could feel myself drain away from my own life, pouring all my attention into the life of another.
Over time, it became easier to observe when I was having negative thoughts while comparing myself to others. By simply reminding myself that I had to give to what I’ve got, I was able to focus on myself and my immediate situation.
Giving to what you’ve got is all about bringing your focus back to the present moment and seeing the abundance rather than the lack.
What really helped me give to what I had was creating a sense of self-trust in the form of a calendar. I would jot down everything I had to do each day for that week, for the next month, or three months, or if I was specifically working on building a long-term skill or improving discipline. I would then trust that I had written down everything I needed to know in my calendar so I could focus on each day and each moment as it came.
When I found myself stressing about the next day’s activities or worrying about where I would be in a few weeks’ time, I would simply bring my focus back to the day I was living in and into the moment I was currently experiencing, whether that was writing, meditating, resting, researching, or exercising.
I then began to notice that this method also worked well whenever I dipped into a mindset of comparison. If I found myself worrying that I was falling behind in life compared to someone else, I would once again bring my focus back to my present moment. In building this new mindset, I started to trust that I didn’t need to look ahead for answers to feel more in control because I was able to find that trust for myself in the present.
I learned to accept that by focusing on the step right in front of me, it would naturally build to the next step and so on. There was no point looking at step five and wondering how I was going to get there because the only way to get there was to stay present throughout steps one, two, three, and four!
In shifting my mentality towards seeing life as a training ground, embracing uncertainty, and focusing on what I had in my life rather than what I didn’t, I was able to truly find myself, discover my passions, and take actions towards them.
Without the comparison blinders up, I also came to see that others were struggling to find their path too, like my sisters. The academic one completed an accounting degree before completing an English literature degree, before delving into the world of academia and eventually into public service. The creative one floated around in administration and bar work for years as she followed her music dreams, before deciding to get her GED and go to college for music, later becoming a singing teacher.
As for me, I came to realise that I was still that child who loved to write, interact with others, and share stories – she was my true self and she was within me from the very start.
With these mindset shifts, I was able to accept that I didn’t need to know what my steps were building towards, or the details of any destination; I just knew the momentum I was creating was leading me in the right direction, and that was enough.
Best of all, my passions started eclipsing the pressure of building a career, so when new and exciting career opportunities came my way, I began to focus more on how that experience could help me grow as a person rather than its material benefits.
Throughout this journey, it was so affirming to observe just how powerful my thoughts could be. All the changes I have been able to make and the joy they brought into my life started within my own mind, with a simple choice – a choice to shift perspective.
In choosing that shift, I have been able to honour who I can be, to be brave in that discovery, and to believe in myself every step of the way until dreams become reality.
Taking a different path is possible. All you need to do is choose it.