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Two Roads Diverge in the Workplace: Which Will You Choose?

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fork in the road

On a sunny spring day in 2014, two young women sit in their office chairs, nibbling on some midday munchies and staring out the window as they dream of a different life. The women live miles apart — in fact, they’ve never met — and yet in many aspects, they couldn’t be more alike:

They both graduated from college around the same time with decent grades. They both clamored about for a bit about what to do next before taking the reasonable path and settling on a job that pays the bills. (The bills do need to be paid, after all.)

And now they’ve gotten restless. Both women long for more: More fulfillment. More passion. More meaning. They long to do work that feeds their soul, not just their bank account.

Two women. Same situation. Same yearning.

Fast forward 10 years later

In the spring of 2024, their lives look strikingly different.

The first woman has come to life — she’s escaped the meaningless, seemingly endless cycle that once defined her. She wakes up each morning with a smile on her face, a spring in her step and an urgency that can’t be stopped. She can’t wait to get to work, to get moving, to give her gift to the world. She’s found herself, she’s found her work, and it shows.

And the second woman? She’s still stuck doing similar work as before — sure, she’s climbed the ranks and advanced in responsibility. She’s even changed companies a few times in hopes of finding a new opportunity, and yet with each move she finds herself taking on similar roles because, well, that’s what she’s qualified to do, right?

Her experience has pigeonholed her, and she doesn’t see a way out without taking a drastic pay cut. And a pay cut? A pay cut isn’t an option when you’ve got a mortgage to pay, student loan (and car and credit card) debt to pay down, and a family to feed. It’s just not realistic — at least, not anymore.

A decade later, she still feels as if a piece of her is dying as she pulls into the parking lot each day. And as she stares out the window in the year 2024, she realizes that not a whole lot has changed in her life over the past 10 years.

“Maybe things could have been different,” she sighs. “But now it’s too late.”

And so she stays, day after day after day…

What made the difference

It’s not that one woman began with more clarity than the other — they both felt lost, stuck and unsure about how to break free. Nor did one have any more talent or skill or luck than the other, except for the luck that she made. One didn’t start off in a better financial position or with a bigger network. And it wasn’t one single thing that made the difference, either — it was lots of things combined.

Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t an easy road for the first woman, and it didn’t happen overnight. There were lots of sleepless nights, lots of tossing and turning and second-guessing. And yet come hell or high water, the first woman was determined to make it happen. She wasn’t sure where to begin or exactly where she’d end up, but she took it upon herself to actively wade through the uncertainty: to explore, to question, to experiment, to play with her passions.

The other waited for clarity and change to find her. She said, “If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen,” or “I’ll make a change tomorrow.” But what change? The truth is, she didn’t know where to start. Sure, she had some ideas about what she might like to do, but the ambiguity and uncertainty paralyzed her. She didn’t see that in closing herself off to uncertainty, she was also closing herself off to possibility. Her fate was sealed.

The first woman reached out and found mentors — people who’d made the leap and built lives they loved  — and their stories gave her hope that a different life was possible. They encouraged, guided and inspired her, and eventually became some of her closest friends.

The second was “too busy” to reach out — and to tell the truth, she was afraid to do it, too. Afraid to look stupid. Afraid of rejection. Afraid it wouldn’t lead her anywhere, anyhow.

One woman found support and community in other people like her: fierce, passionate, driven fire-starters who weren’t about to accept less from life than what their hearts demanded. They helped each other grow,  held each other accountable and nudged each other forward when they wanted to give up.

The other thought she had to go at it alone — and in doing so, ended up going nowhere at all. She clung to her familiar group of friends and acquaintances, the kind of people who counted down the hours till 5:00 each day, living for martinis and weekends in bikinis. It was safe. It was familiar. It was all she knew. She was one of them, and one of them she’d remain.

One lived below her means. She skipped shopping trips and Starbucks and sandy destinations to pay down her student loan debt — fast. She picked up an extra job bartending on weekends and used the extra cash to invest in trainings and conferences and coaching — anything to get her where she wanted to go.

The other tried her best to be frugal, but it was easy to cave when it came to dinners and drinks and vacations in Vegas. When opportunities for training and growth came along, she’d say to herself, ”I can’t afford that kind of stuff.” What she didn’t see was that the alternative was much more costly.

She believed that finding meaningful work was unrealistic — a fairytale — and too far away. She gave up on her dream before she even gave it a chance.

The first woman knew that a life of fulfillment might not come easily, but she was willing to risk ambiguity and disappointment and loss. She knew that it was better to go through struggles on her own path than to sail smoothly on one that was not her own. (Click here to tweet this thought.) Scribbled on the journal at her bedside was a quote by author Paulo Coelho:

On some nights, [the warrior] has nowhere to sleep, on others he suffers from insomnia. “That’s just how it is,” thinks the warrior. “I was the one who chose to walk this path.” In these words lies all his power: He chose the path along which he is walking and so has no complaints.

This is how she’s felt about her journey. It’s been scary, uncertain, arduous and sometimes risky. And yet it’s all been infinitely worthwhile. From the moment she began to walk along her own path, she knew she was on her way home.

Which will you be?

Thoreau famously wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

So I have just one question for you: Which life will you lead? What song will you sing? Five or 10 or 15 years from now, who will you be — most men or the man? The first woman or the second woman? One of a million, or one in a million?

The choice, my friend, is yours.

This post originally appeared on TheUnlost.com.

Therese Schwenkler is the Founder, CEO and “Marketer of Truth” at TheUnlost.com, where she provides non-sucky advice on life, love, work and what to do when life sucks. Click here to read Therese’s most popular articles about discovering the work that you love (plus, learn why it’s OK to be lost and confused).

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

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  • Ben

    Great article.
    I feel like this was written and directed at me as a wake up call…
    It’s just amazing that when you’re stuck in this seemingly innocent mindset it can have such a devastating impact – and they don’t teach this reality to us in school.
    Thanks!

  • http://callboxinc.com.au/ Bianca Farrow

    In life, we choose something and focus on it. We didn’t realized that keeping our attention on it makes us stock on that same spot for so long already. So before it’s to late, we have to put in mind that anything is possible. Decide to do something that will make you better.

  • http://www.callbox.com.sg/call-to-invite/ Hannah Tan

    I want to be the first woman who lead her life in a positive way. I think you better walk with the wise. Walking with them can impact your success. The wise are mature and competent. They are skilled at the craft of life. Befriend the wise and choose them to be the ones who influence your work and guide your career.

  • jhon woon

    It is never the job itself, but the effort you are willing to put in
    to make that job the best fit for you and the blog. Engaged people will
    do extraordinary things so how do you become an asset you must be
    engaged in the vision and goal of your blog, but that requires you also
    being in engaged in the growth and development of others. That is one
    quality that is hard to find, because most people are afraid to develop
    others in fear of losing what they have.
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