An extraordinary life

All of us, at some point, somewhere inside, believed that an extraordinary life required you to be an extraordinary person. We don’t often say: “That person lives an extraordinary life.” Instead, we shorthand it to: “That person is extraordinary.” (Pick your celebrity of choice: movie star, athlete, tech startup CEO, Tim Ferris, etc.)

But is that really the case?

I live an extraordinary life. I’ve been told that enough that I finally fully believe it, but it doesn’t so much feel “special” as much as it just feels like, well, my life. I’m not an extraordinary person. Now, this is neither self-deprecation or false modesty: I grew up in a middle-class family in a middle-class neighborhood and went to “normal schools.” I have some talents, sure, but I’m not Martha Argerich on the piano or Anne-Sophie Mutter on the violin. I can count, definitely, but I’m not about to win any math awards. Or computer programming competitions. Or an F1 race. Or an Olympic gold medal in swimming.

I am not an “extraordinary person” and part of that is because while I’m gifted enough, and I rank in some percentile somewhere for some things, I’m not a prodigy or genius. However, the other part of it, and this is the most important part: there are very few, if any, extraordinary people. There are just people that live extraordinary lives because they have chosen to do so.

It’s just a choice. But, let’s unpack it.

Two years ago…
I was depressed. Clinically? Eh, I don’t know. Factually? Definitely. It was September 2016, I had resigned from my old (comfortable but supremely unfulfilling) job, accepted a new (shiny and possibly different) job, and in the space of 48 hours, had a devastating, unexpected breakup that shattered my life.

Okay, so we have not just one, but two great stress inducers at once. Prior to that I had a sense – or at least I’d thought I’d had a sense and a handle – on what the next few years of my life would look like. Then all of that changed in short period of time. I had an acute panic attack that was drawn out into an extended state of panic over a 2 week period; I stopped sleeping; I couldn’t eat; and I went into a waking nightmare that lasted well past those initial 2 weeks.

Are you here with me? Does that sound great? Oh, you say, this is a standard narrative: event happens, person goes into a hole, person eventually comes out of the hole, shiny and brand new, the end. You’ve heard this story before, right?

Except, let’s be honest, for most people, it is 1) never that simple, and 2) they come out of the hole, but rarely shiny and brand new. In fact, they often repeat the same things that got them into the hole in the first place, and so they eventually end up back in the hole. Why? Because it’s comfortable.

How I started getting out of the hole
Painfully. I tried reconciling with my ex; that didn’t work. This new job that was going to be exciting and amazing? Well, all jobs are jobs for a reason, and neither my head or heart were in it, not for the first couple of months, and it was a startup where nobody had any idea what they were doing. There was a lot of head-banging and self-recrimination and misery; that’s what Fall / Winter 2016 was for me: misery.

Except for one thing: swimming. I got swimming lessons, and then I spent weeks of making myself do that one thing. It was all I had the energy to do. Winter mornings at 7am in New York City are frigid and mean. I would shuffle into my car, cold, and I would drive the 10 minutes to the Y, still cold, and I would get in the JK Pool (because I wasn’t ready for 12 feet of water, oh hell no), still cold, and then I would swim with my group of little old people. Stroke after stroke, sucking in more chlorine than will ever be worth it, until I learned how to breathe and I swam myself out of the first part of the hole.

Then I moved
Because it had always been in my head to leave NYC, but I’d often found myself waiting on others – will this job move me to London or Hong Kong or Singapore? Will I meet someone who wants to change cities and try something new? Can I convince my family to detach themselves from NYC? Will I find a b-school I actually want to go to of which is justification to leave?

But this is the cycle, right? Every time I had been through this before: breakup, new job, new hobby… I never stepped back to observe myself and my world. I never took stock. I didn’t actually change my stars.

This time, I took a trip to Seattle with a close friend to help her check out that city for her potential move. I kept traveling to Washington, D.C. – the District – week after week, for work. I had made up a list of possible cities (Boston, Austin, LA, Philly), but somehow the place where my office was located never made it onto that list, until one week I went down and that same friend came with me to hang out for a few days, and then–

That was it. I was moving to the District. I didn’t have a large group of friends there, practically none, in truth. I didn’t have family there. It didn’t have a super-large LGBT community that I knew of. It was a city that I’d only visited once before, for 3 days, a few years back, and I knew nothing about it. In retrospect, it was a great big leap with real potential for failure: I’d never lived out of NYC, I’d never had to build a friend group outside of work, I’d never–

Challenged myself in this way.

Okay, so how do you get from there – a risk – to here, an extraordinary life?
All of the above sounds mundane and quite a bit boring, yes? Well, that’s because it is.

It is not in great leaps and bounds that your life happens. It may appear that way to others; it certainly does to some in my extended group of friends and acquaintances. “You always seem to land another bigger, better job, how? I can’t do that!” “You’re always traveling? How do you do that? Do you have a trust fund?” “How do you always find the cool thing to do?” Et cetera, whatever, all of that is just surface appearance.

  • I get a bigger job because I do I my work and I have spent 15 years developing a skill-set that is relatively unique in my industry. It didn’t happen overnight. You just see the jobs; I have a career.
  • I’m always traveling because I love to travel and so, I make it a priority. You want to spend $200 going to a concert at the Barclays? Cool, that is amazing, you do you! And love it! Me? I’d rather take a road trip or catch a flight or spend it on skating lessons.
  • Regular happy hour with the same group of friends, and weekly brunches with your besties and your group? Cool! That is one way to live your life and I respect it. For me, however, I have a wide group of friends who don’t all know each other (though they all know of each other) and I spend regular time with each of them and we do the things that we like to do with each other. One friend loves the great outdoors? We’ll go for a snow walk. Another loves food? Food festival it is. I keep my eyes open for new things and I always know the right person to call and do it. And if I can’t find anyone but I want to do it? I do it.

Et cetera, whatever, that’s the work behind the appearance. I live an extraordinary life because I choose to keep myself open, I choose to keep growing, I choose to keep challenging myself and taking risks, and I choose to live my best life. My best life isn’t necessarily comfortable; my best life isn’t necessarily like everybody else’s, and 98% of the time, I’m okay with that, and I don’t let the 2% drag me down or overtake how much I have come to love my every day.

My best life is mine and it is made of spending time on the things that I value: travel, food, photography, nature, winter, friends and family, fellowship and community, swimming, finance, global events, and culture. I don’t waste time worrying about what other people think. I don’t believe in shame anymore. I am a great sister, friend, cousin, aunt, manager, mentor, and all the other identities because what I bring to the table is true, honest, and real.

Do you want extraordinary friendships? Put yourself, your true self, into your individual friendships. Be open and vulnerable. Share. Forget the group; find the people. Do you want extraordinary experiences? Be willing to step outside of your norms and what you know. Have a “beginner’s mind” – the mind of a child and so you’re willing to learn, to make mistakes, and be okay with that. Do you want an extraordinary love? Oh, dang, then you’re going to need to be brave, to dig deep into who you are and what you value and find someone else who is the same, even if it doesn’t look like what you expected and doesn’t match what other people around you have or want you to have. It’s your love and your story, not theirs! Don’t give it away.

Altogether, do you want an extraordinary life? Choose to live the life that is meant for you to live. You must choose it, day by day, in things little and big. You must choose it, even when it means going against the grain of “the norm” (which is a big lie we all tell ourselves that supports us being comfortable in all of our miseries).

It is a choice, all of it, is just a choice.

2018 is over. 2019 is knocking on the door. Are you going to answer? What choice are you going to make?

Are you going to start living your extraordinary life?

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