I have always been fascinated by the idea that there is a life that is “meant” for us, and that our most important task is to find exactly what it is. Since I was little, there were things that I was completely drawn towards, others that repulsed me. However, the mantra that came from my parents, was “work hard in all fields, especially those that you hate most”. That meant that I had to work twice as hard in math than I did in literature, and spend less time doing the things I liked best: reading, speculating, envisioning.
It got worse when I arrived in high school. I attended the French school and, at the time, in the French system, if you were a good student you were expected to choose the “scientific track”. There was basically no discussion. When I suggested to my parents that I enjoyed literature and philosophy more than any other subject, they shook their shoulders and told me I could do those things “in my spare time”. To oblige them – and, in a certain way, to follow what I had been convinced to believe was the “right path” – I took the scientific track. I was basically miserable for my entire junior year. I struggled, spent most of my time slaving over complex math, physics and chemistry problems, and my stress levels were very high – too high for a sixteen year-old. To make a long story short, the following year, after a couple of months I found the guts to go to the principal and change to the literary track… without my parents knowing! I twas one of the best decisions of my life. I spent my senior high school year on the subjects that I adored, and my quality of life soared dramatically. My parents – and especially my mom – took it very very badly, but that wasn’t so important: I had found what Martha Beck calls my “north star”.
I relived this episode of my life very intensely as I read “Finding your own North Star” because the fundamental tenet of the book is that you should get yourself out of a life that is “wrong” for you and search for what makes you truly happy. Some key decisions – like the one I made at sixteen years of age – can have a tremendous impact on our lives, while others, conversely, can bring about years and years of misery.
So how are we supposed to find our North Star? Martha Beck dedicates a good portion of the book to this. Basically, it’s about learning to decipher the signals that come from our body, our emotions and our intuition. What she calls the “essential self” – the most pure expression of who we really are – speaks through the above-mentioned channels, and we must pay close attention. The problem is that, in parallel, our “social self” – the one that has interiorized the will of our parents, our teachers and “society” at large – is intent on making us numb to those signals. So, for example, my body was telling me deep down that I was miserable studying math 10 hours per week: I had trouble sleeping, waking up in the morning, sitting through class without yawning continuously etc. My emotions told me the same things: the exhilaration I felt in Philosophy class was matched by the dread I experienced in Physics. My intuition was just as clear: change track, go for the literary track! At the same time, a voice in me said “L, poubelle” (Literary = garbage, as the mantra around the school went); I saw images of my parents scolding me, of the principle completely disappointed at me; I saw my future life doomed (who would ever hire someone coming from a Literary Bac, I was meant to think).
This battle between the essential self and the social self – between what we desire deep down and what “others” tell us to do – is a watershed moment. When we bow to the social norms, when we repress our true nature to align ourselves with a path designed by others we are in for some serious trouble in the long run. I truly believe, as Martha Beck does, that success in life is the product of doing what you are passionate about, and what you are good at. Following a path where there is no passion usually leads to a mediocre career and a depressing life… a life where the dominant emotions are grief, fear and anger, as opposed to joy. As Tony Robbins puts it, “The quality of our life is largely determined by the quality of our emotions”. And, as Martha Beck points out, to experience positive emotions on a consistent basis we need to be following our true path.
The last third of the book illustrates the various stages that – in the author’s experience – people usually go through when they decide to break free from their “disconnected self” and embark in a journey to discover their North Star and work hard to move in that direction. I particularly liked this part, because it does away with the myth that finding your passion is easy, and that when you find it miraculous things happen. Quite to the contrary, Beck argues that it is not so easy to find what “our thing” is. Years and years of social conditioning has made us oblivious to our true self. Most of us were not encouraged to dream, to look deep down within ourselves to discover what drives us. Quite to the contrary, we were offered a ready-made path and cajoled into following it.
To be clear: the easiest part is realizing that our life is not heading in the direction we want. It is easy to realize this – our body and emotions are inescapable – but difficult to live through the consequences. Beck aptly talks about “living through our own death”. We abruptly dis-identify with our previous roles, but we don’t know what our new ones will be. Our identity is shattered.
The second phase is even more difficult: trying to understand what we really are about. Knowing what you don’t like is one thing; knowing what you do like i is a totally different matter. It takes a lot of “dreaming and scheming”, and sometimes we can end up in various false paths. This can lead to a lot of second guessing: “maybe I should have stayed on the original path to start with”; “maybe it really was as good as it gets”. It takes lots of courage to get through that stage, but also a lot of “letting go”. It is the phase when our imagination has to be let loose, free from the repressive social constraints.
But where I think Marta Beck hits it spot on is the third phase, that she calls “The Hero’s journey”. She dispels the myth that doing what you are meant to do is easy. Even when you find your North Star, attaining your goals still requires some “old-fashioned hard work”. I can totally relate to that. When I switched to the literary track I paradoxically found myself working more hours than when I was in the scientific track, and with greater intensity. The difference was that, even though it was somewhat painful (writing a 20 page dissertation on “Being and Nothingness” always is…), I was exhilarated. It’s like childbirth, the author says: you can withstand the pain and almost enjoy it, because the final outcome is immensely valuable to you. Beck reminds us that “suffering can be an integral part of the most profound of joy. In fact, once the suffering has ended, having experienced it seems to magnify the capacity to feel pleasure and delight”.
Ultimately, though, even though the North Star is a fixed point on the horizon, our journey towards it is a never-ending one. As Tony Robbins says, as humans we have a fundamental need to grow, and no matter how thrilling our achievements, we always need to look for greater challenges. The North Star is thus not a destination, but a path, a long, winding and immensely gratifying path that brings us the utmost satisfaction. We stray away from it at our own peril.