At the age of six, my sister told a stranger, “Don’t have a lugubrious day!” Even at a young age, she knew big words. She and my mom would practice vocabulary and would always stop to look up unfamiliar words when reading. They enjoyed distinguishing shades of meaning between similar words.
This was their thing; I didn’t bother. I read for plot, easily skipping over gaping, unfamiliar words. If I could understand the general meaning of the sentence, I wasn’t bothered by a quick skip over a missing word here or there. When it came time to study for the SATs, this attitude showed. I spent a bit of time with flash cards to make up for this. I learned the meaning of obdurate and lachrymose (words that my mom was shocked that I hadn’t known by then). Yet, even with new this new vocab, I didn’t fully understand the importance of words and their power to shape how we see ourselves and the world.
I’ve come to understand that our language is the scaffolding that supports our world view. The words we use house so many built-in assumptions. Our language has the power to either uplift us and help us connect, or it can help enforce our own insecurities and divide us from others.
Examining our own vocabulary is a chance to redefine what we mean. Shades of nuance in our definition of success and career, for example, can shape our decisions big and small– from which job we seek, to how we treat our coworkers, to how we spend our time. The language we use matters. It has the power to shift how we see ourselves and how we see the world.
“Career” has a loaded meaning for me, one that I’ve worked to redefine. By default, it meant an important body of paid work; a series of jobs with promotions, expertise and authority; a trajectory of growing respect and accomplishment.
Blindly following this definition, the first part of my life was on autopilot: school, college, job, grad school. There were promotions, there were coworkers. There were ups and downs, but I had a clear trajectory; I didn’t see much need for reflection about where I was going. And yet, I felt an uncomfortable discontent. It is only now, with much hindsight and therapy that I see that this discontent was an existential ennui. It was a feeling of grappling with being both the center of my own universe, and a microscopic speck in the grand scheme of things. It was the challenge of defining life, work, and success for myself.
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of career is actually much gentler than my own: A person’s “course or progress through life (or a distinct portion of life).” With this meaning, the need for certain types of success and accomplishment (read: titles and promotions) is stripped away, and I am freed to chart my own course.
As we approach Small Answers’ three year anniversary, I’ve been thinking about how this blog has helped me with this cartography. From the outset, Small Answers has aimed to help broaden and shift our thinking about what is means to create a career, and, more than that, a life.
The process of writing about these topics has been transformational. Small Answers was created as a place to share personal stories about things that matter. They might be seemingly small things, like when a coworker asks us to make copies, or significant milestones like becoming a mother (or maybe not). At any scale, the process of writing down my stories and ideas, and reading other people’s stories, has solidified my own understanding of myself and what I value.
Whether it’s failure or happiness, work or family, these are terms that get tossed around in society with trite, generally meaningless maxims, like “follow your passion.” As we’ve written the blog, we noticed that many of the posts, large and small, deal with a central theme of redefining these terms for ourselves.
Small Answers has taken a personal and nuanced approach to this. We’ve never aimed to provide precise definitions these big vocab words and I still cannot give you a satisfying definition or prescription for a successful career. But writing and gathering this collection of essays exploring the meaning of words like passion, lazy and ambition has shaped my thinking. I am no longer so confined by trying to climb a career ladder, I am no longer so judgmental about my own ambitions.
Defining life’s terms for ourselves gets at something quite deep. It bores down to the central question: What makes a meaningful life? Of all questions about how to live and work, this is perhaps the largest, most significant question. Yet, even after three years, we have only the smallest of answers: it depends.
But I do hope that something in the last three years has sparked your imagination to rethink this weighty idea for yourself.