On Where Life Takes Us

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who will decide where to go….

Dr. Seuss

Today, I woke to the sun rising over the intracoastal waters in my paradise, drinking coffee, hearing the birds sing, and watching dolphins play. For someone whose high school ambition was to live on the beach, I’m pretty sure I have been blessed to fulfill part of that (well, the other half was to have a cherry red Porsche, so I’ve still got some work to do.). More importantly, I am able to do the work I am passionate about, with some great colleagues, and family and friends close by, all in this slice of heaven on earth. Today is also my birthday, and as I do every year, I take some time on this day to reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I want to go with my remaining birthdays.

When I graduated from high school, I never imagined I’d be where I am today. Though my high school ambition was to live on a beach, the beach I envisioned was one on the Cape, in a small beach cottage with a white picket fence surrounded by hydrangeas. I wanted to be an English teacher and write novels during the summer months. Over the years, my path has brought me to many places, but not there. I’ve moved from New England, to Upstate New York, to Michigan, and now to Florida on a different beach. Well, part time, but that’s another story.

Just as contrary, I am an engineer, with training in science, and I work in industry, instead of academics. At one time I thought to marry my love of teaching with research and be a professor. However, during my postdoctoral training, it became clear to me that I belonged in an environment that leveraged not only my technical skills but my entrepreneurial spirit. After many years spent juggling home and family responsibilities while piecemealing together consulting stints and part time jobs to stay relevant in my field, I finally ended up with what I think of as my dream position on an intellectually rewarding team where each and every one of us has specific expertise, but are flexible enough to be a Jack-of-all-trades when needed. Since I am easily bored doing the same thing all the time and thrive on challenge, this suited me perfectly.

I was recently asked by someone if I loved what I’m doing, and if I ever wanted to be anything else. My first response was yes, I love what I do. But as I described some of my path above, it seemed that I have diverged so far from my original path. So what did that mean about my current path? Did I miss something or regret not following my original dreams?

As I thought about the facets of what attracted me to what I wanted to be and what I am now, I realized that each path shared common traits. Love of learning. Intellectual challenge. Freedom to satiate my curiosity. Logical thought and debate. Innovation. Ideation. Creativity. Dissemination and contribution to the body of knowledge. Freedom to design my own course of action. Ability to pursue my passion (I love both science and literature). Using my talents to make the world a better place. Teaching the next generation skills to find their own paths and contribute to society. And so on…When I stacked up all these things that are important to me, I realized that either path I took, I would have probably been satisfied, hopefully successful, and happy.

I’m not sure if I’d been an English teacher and an author where I’d be now, who would have entered my life, and the exact details of my day. But I’d like to think it would be similar to this, since in either timeline, I would be fulfilling those parts of me that make me who I am and drive me everyday. And that’s what truly matters. Being true to what we are and value, and growing to reach our true potential. And when I think about where life takes me next, I remember a phrase that is particularly meaningful in my life: you can have it all, just not all at the same time. So, though I’m currently a published author in technical journals and books, which in some sense satisfies my need to write, that doesn’t mean I’ve given up my dream of being a writer of fiction one day. It just means that I will take it one step at a time.

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