By Michael Kline
My life is nearly perfect. I do what I want, when I want, with whom I want. I enjoy good health, positive people, good food, good wine and a nice home. I work when I want and enjoy more creature comforts than I ever thought I deserved. In fact, my biggest worry in life is that I don’t mess it up after coming so far. This is the story I was telling myself. You must admit, it is a pretty good story for a college drop-out, born to a drunk in a junkyard.
Cancer took our mother when I was 7. As the 11th of 12 children, 4 of us were adopted by an Aunt and Uncle who, in their better than their own past, middle-class way, tried their best to fix us. They never let me forget their disappointing discovering that in spite of their well-educated efforts, you can “take the boy out of the junkyard, but you can’t take the junkyard out of the boy”. Big Lie #1 - You’re no good.
“You have to have a 4 year degree to be worth anything” Big Lie #2 – Credentials define you, and you are not enough without credentials.
“Your sister is going to become a nurse. (She did). She will take care of us when we are old. (She didn’t). Girls become teachers, secretaries or nurses. Since you are a boy, you need to grow up to be a lawyer or something (I didn’t) because you have to support a family one day”. (I didn’t do that either). Big Lie #3 – You cannot just do what you want.
I could argue that I got my perfect life because I believed these lies. I set small goals that I could achieve and achieved every one of them. I dropped out of college, bucked the system, fired the boss and went out on my own. I believed I was not good enough to subject myself to the judgment of others; a problem I solved by becoming my own boss. I believed that I would never make it as a professional, so I decided to create a little success doing anything that was easy to learn without an authority figure to judge me. Without a boss or teacher, my partner and I went into flipping houses, then the food business and then retail, each creating a little success. Life was perfect and easy, until one day someone asked me if I had a purpose.
Purpose? I have to make a living, that’s all I was ever taught. Purpose is a grandiose concept for spiritual leaders, philosophers and politicians. My purpose is to raise a family, make a living, pay off the mortgage and die. Looking at it that way, I was not following the plan at all. As a gay man, I chose not to raise a family, which admittedly, renders making a living much easier. We already owned three homes with no mortgages, and at fifty years old, in good health and bored, having a purpose for the second half of my life intrigued me. Maybe my life was not really perfect.
It turns out my core strengths are my capacity to love, my optimism and my creativity. The work I do when I am most lost in time, in “the flow” as they say, is teaching in a way that truly opens eyes and inspires my students. The concept of a more ideal world that excites me is that anyone and everyone should have the chance to flourish. The junkyard that could not be taken out of this boy turned out to be a blessing. Three lessons from the junkyard: Resourcefulness is more important than resources. We all have the ability to create something out of nothing. What we choose to be, do and have is entirely our own responsibility. Cross off lie #1. You are good.
None of my skills are taught in college, while a degree in chemical engineering, for which I had a full scholarship, would not build my credibility in transformational work. My intuition and wisdom at an early age however, to abandon such a wasteful pursuit, is a reflection of my natural skills to discern what is helpful and what is not. Cross off Lie #2. You define you, not credentials.
Music was my passion as a teenager; specifically the French Horn. I was good. Very good, if I do say so myself. And I do. As I lost myself in my room, practicing hours at a time, I would close my eyes and be playing first chair in the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall. On parental advice, I abandoned music to join the Air Force Junior ROTC in high school, which would almost guarantee me a scholarship, as would be required to pay for all-important college education. I have since collected a lifetime of evidence that every appealing venture I chose was successful and every unappealing thing I was pushed into was a failure. Cross of Lie #3. You can do and you deserve to do anything you like.
Today, my life is no longer perfect. Today I have a purpose and I pursue my passions. I am extra-blessed because my purpose and passion helps other people pursue theirs. All my successes, even created on my own terms, were still defined by the expectations of others. I was successful, as long as all I had to do was make a living. To live a life engaged, on purpose, with meaning and joy is perfect – perfectly messy, unpredictable, scary seemingly irresponsible to some parental models. Perfect indeed.