I was a fan of Michelle Obama’s before I read her book “Becoming”. But, I was truly impressed with her memoir, and how accessible she became to me, how familiar some of her challenges. I did not grow up a Black girl in south Chicago, and I know my white privilege filters everything I read. But I can identify with her one-track pursuit of excellence in school and her unassailable understanding that if she would go to the best schools she could find, and continue to a career open to only those select few with connections and/or brains, all would be peachy.
That track is familiar to many high achievers who wish or are pushed by family to move beyond their own roots. It’s what the American Dream is right? Moving up, beyond your parents’ means.
Of late, there’s been some disruption in this dream. Economic downturns, the rising cost of higher education and mounting student debt have caused many to question whether getting to the pinnacle is worth it. And, once one does reach it, it becomes a trap—the big job and salary required to pay down the debt while buying the house one is expected to own, thereby keeping our economy strong. They don’t call it the ‘rat race’ for nothin’.
I was particularly taken by Obama’s anecdotes about various characters in the book taking a move that she referred to as “a swerve”. It struck a nerve. In simple terms, a swerve is a change of direction, unexpected or abrupt. The best example was when she described a college boyfriend disrupting his plans for medical school by becoming a sports team mascot. It’s not so much who took the swerve in the book that I’m interested in, it is Obama’s theme that a swerve was taken and it was almost always a surprise.
You can almost hear the chatter about that decision. “What was he thinking? How could he do that to his parents? What about his future? Who will ever take him seriously as a doctor, and will he ever become a doctor now?”
Perhaps he had understanding parents who supported his decision. And that together they sorted out a way for him to take the equivalent of a ‘gap year’ before going to medical school to relax and have some fun before entering the grueling regimen of becoming a doctor. Could they manage to defer the start of any college loan re-payment?
Would the Medical School be willing to offer him a delay of a year or two before starting?
I give the guy a lot of credit. He had to pause on his path long enough to check in with his feelings about readiness, whether he was burned out, whether he was moving on up for himself or just because it was expected of him?
But, the swerves taken in Obama’s book went beyond one taken by the guy who took the equivalent of a gap year off. Obama herself swerved when she left her career in a prestigious Chicago law firm to take on a non-profit job. Her brother swerved when he left his comfortable financial job to move into coaching basketball.
Clearly, these moves are available to only those who can afford to take a risk. But, risk is in the eye of the beholder. Beyond the financial risks, anyone who swerves in their career path must weigh the positives and negatives of how they will be perceived by those who may need to help them if their new path doesn’t lead to the satisfaction they were seeking, or a way to make a living.
When one deviates from an expected path, takes a swerve, he or she could be called a deviant or a risk-taker. Hmmm…what is your perspective on this?
I’m reminded of the saying “If you don’t know where you’re going any step will take you there.” Of course, it maybe ill-advised not to have a general map in mind for your life. But, haven’t we all learned something when we got lost? Or when we took a path less traveled which led to something unexpected, but forever life-changing? Even if it turns out to be a short-term adventure? Just a swerve?
*This essay appeared first in Thrive Global, May 29, 2019.