What To Do When You Don’t Have An Answer

2011 August 10

Recently, I was asked what I wanted and I couldn’t answer. It was one of those tipsy late-night conversations in which people feel almost duty-bound to ask dramatic, probing questions and then nod along sagely with your dramatic, probing answer because our whole lives are just poignant moonlit set pieces, yes? But I couldn’t answer. And even trying to come up with an answer left me stigmatic.

That bothered me. Words are my thing. Surety is my thing. Being the person who knows where she’s going and is already halfway there while you’re still puzzling over the map is my thing. And I didn’t have anything to say.  But I didn’t let the question drop. I kept working on it. Doggedly, even. I told myself that there was no right answer. This wasn’t a job interview trap. I didn’t have to sketch out the next 10 years right down to my future firstborn’s middle name. I just had to be able to articulate what I would like to do with my time if I had all of the resources to do it. And I just had to be honest.

I came up with:

  • Write stuff
  • Go places
  • Have adventures
  • Meet people

Unsurprisingly, what I happen to be doing now has elements of these things (as does what I could be doing), but not in a great enough supply that I feel as if I’m getting my fill. So I started working through my How To Get Unstuck plan (read it if you haven’t already) and plowed ahead to step 3. I started picking up threads that I had dropped. I reached out to people to say, “You know what? Everything has been nuts, but I want to pursue this idea. If you still feel the same way, let’s make it work.” And people responded enthusiastically. I also kept telling the truth, kept being inquisitive and questioned my impulse to edit at every step. Say it. Do it. Clean up only as much as is necessary. And I reached out to other people with, “Tell me more. I’m interested.” or “What do you think of this?” or “Here’s the deal.” and that mostly worked, too.  And I wrote a blog post in which I shared how and where things were and that really worked. People had been looking for a more personal connection here, something beyond pith and prescriptivism. I’ve known that for a long time now, but it’s never really felt like the right time or the right material. It probably isn’t the right time or the right material now, but I did it anyway. And I’ll keep doing it.

This is what I’ve figured out:

If you have your own idea, it makes you feel less like snatching someone else’s and jumping up and down on it until it’s mashed into the dirt. I get this now. And if you’re in motion, it’s hard to be mired in the mud at the same time. I get that, too. So, move. Move toward something. If it doesn’t feel good, move away from it.  Keep wandering in a big ol’ circle until something pulls you in one direction or another. Ask questions. Ask yourself. Ask others.

And don’t be too hard on anyone who can’t answer right away.

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