There was a time when I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: the guy who collected the shopping carts at K-Mart. (It was right up there with engineer, which I felt I was well-suited for, but not nearly as much fun.) It seemed we went there every week for one thing or another. I don’t recall anything we actually bought, but my Dad and I ate at the “Sandwich Shoppe” in the back as a matter of ritual.
They had K-Marts in Florida, too, and was one of the first places we seemed to go upon arrival, picking up odds and ends we needed for our vacation instead of taking them on the plane. For some reason, after dropping my daughter off at work, I simply needed to see through the eyes of that child again. I almost never go into one of their stores these days, but this time, I took myself back and engaged with an odd, satisfying joy the feeling I used to have, like the big store was a series of worlds I could explore at leisure. Time stood still and I didn’t have a care in the world.
Of course I went right for the toy section, except I couldn’t find it. I paused by the bikes and thought briefly about all the cool accessories I could put on mine, had I still had one. I took in the ales of unimportant grown-up stuff as if exploring the wilds of another culture, and the only thing different was that eye level was quite a bit higher today for me.
I took a second walk around the store, then sighed that I could find no toys. I didn’t bother to question anyone about it; it just seemed appropriate — it was meant to be. It wasn’t the place I was looking for anyway. I was really looking for myself, and I found him. But I was not him when all was said and done, and that’s okay.
I think my urge stemmed from an insight brought to earlier in the day. My whole life I have gravitated toward starting my own journeys rather than follow someone else’s. I studied subjects no one around me had much knowledge about, and preferred being a big fish in a small pond.
I used to think it was simply ego — the desire to be the center of attention, the alpha nerd, the fearless leader (“Which way did they go?!”). Of course, there’s always some truth to that. But my gut feeling was something else. When I switched grade schools halfway through my primary education, I went from known and loved classmate to ridiculed outsider. I never gave it much thought, and certainly didn’t know I had learned a hard lesson from it.
I’ve been too hard on myself, always keeping a critical eye on my own ego, even when I sleep. Now I see (and accept) I was putting myself in a position of player versus pawn for another reason — an emotional preference for not being the odd man out in every metaphorical gym class. I’d rather be in a position to inspire than be inspired, to be the resident expert helping others rather than sitting back, deferring such work at all times to my elders.
Socially, I’ve always tended to create a space (or club or business) from scratch that would be inviting to others, rather than succumbing to some pecking-order role out in the world. I don’t want to scratch my way over anyone to the top of anything. And I don’t want anyone else in my world to feel they have to, either.
Achievement and ego are no longer tangled up. This is freedom! Not only am I no longer beating myself up over achievements (or potential success), but can’t use it as an excuse NOT to achieve. I can push carts or own my own store — or both! I can accept being a teacher without hesitation, yet maturely acknowledge resistance to being the student I must always be.