By Jake Bornstein
I made a big decision in high school, I think around age 15 or so. No matter how much I wanted to create a more beautiful world, or how many ideas I had for how to do it, none of it mattered unless I had the actual power to put it into place. This decision carried me to Princeton, and on to the inside track at the planet’s largest hedge fund, where, one year out of college, I was giving portfolio advice to the heads of national social security and reserve funds, writing research delivered regularly to President Obama’s desk, and building out comprehensive maps of the world’s entire financial system. For the achieving parts of my personality, the parts that love to understand things deeply, it was wonderful, the culmination of something. And for a while, money was a good enough answer to the little voice inside me asking, “why?”
Until it wasn’t.
To me, that question, and the obstacles it brought me, were the beginning of a dialogue with my true self - my soul, my essence, my being. If you’ve felt it, you know what I’m talking about - those moments of wholeness, where you feel, you know, you are in the right place, living the right life at the right time. If you don’t know - what feels expansive? What in each moment makes your chest feel like it’s going to burst with possibility? What makes you feel sick, and what makes you feel nourished? Trust your lived experience, even when it doesn’t make sense.
I've spent a lot of effort figuring out the right vocation, when the question I wish I had asked was how to hear my soul. It did not always sound as I would have imagined it. When I first heard that call - in the form of restlessness, illness, and depression - I went to work with the only tools I believed I had. I made Venn diagrams of my interests, values, and talents. I read philosophy and went to conferences and met activists and took personality tests and mapped capacities onto potential needs within the organization and broader world. I believed that purpose could be deduced; if I found the right leverage point, the right project, the right expertise, I would feel whole. And that belief kept me trapped.
When I imagined that my calling had to be something “big,” a vocation or venture that would make a good TED talk, I missed the subtle voice of my truest self as it actually appears. Sometimes it just wants to drink tea and listen to the rain. Sometimes it’s drawn to a particular tree or person, a little voice saying, “I want to go talk to them.” Sometimes it’s a serendipitous late night with old friends and new ones, passions and projects and wounds and truths spilling over, or chance meetings on the street that, when I open up to really listening - to others, to myself - the work seems to simply come into place. The scale of my dreams was never the problem; the problem was imagining that it was the only way my soul would speak.
I remember a night at a permaculture course that I went to after leaving my job. I was just putting the finishing touches on my final project, a full redesign of a nearby farmer’s land. I remember the wood table outside, a big piece of butcher paper and colored pencils, childlike glee as if I were making an elaborate treasure map, the kind of monomaniacal focus and intoxicating joy of doing a project simply because I wanted to. I remember walking downstairs to my whole class celebrating under the stars with guitars, drum beats tapped out with silverware against overturned glasses, and I remember the scary, wonderful, pointless freedom of adding my voice to the chorus. I haven’t since used permaculture directly in my career (and certainly not singing!), but that’s not the point.
I had remembered the joy of simply being.
It's not always easy. When we first begin to really listen to our own truths, what we see can be ugly. I began to see all my hypocrisies, the way I would accommodate and please, the many ways I lied to myself and others. I became tormented by my dependency on a modern industrial system that felt unjust and my unwillingness to really leave it. I was scared of financial insecurity, of being unable to support myself and my family in any way that felt coherent. I felt queasy staying in the "plan" of my life, and terrified at the vast open space outside it, wondering if it was really possible for me to meet the world as I truly am, rather than the professional image I had created.
When we begin to ask our lives what really feels good, beautiful, and true, it can feel like a gut punch to find how little passes. It's easy to make parts of ourselves (or others) the enemy - our minds, our cultural conditioning, our jobs, our desires, our inconsistencies - and to feel incommensurate to the demands of living a life that truly feels like our own. Living this way has led me through financial hardship, paralyzing uncertainty, and the lost promise of a predictable life. But I believe the ability to listen to soul is the base material of philosophers’ stones - the way to turn the lead of life’s challenges into potential gold.
This is the deep power of living a soul-driven life. Whatever ways life breaks you into pieces, you can feel fundamentally whole. For me, in the years since, this has included elation, profound hopelessness, and something like maturation into the man I want to be. By taking my inner world seriously, my outer world has blossomed with possibility. I find the richness of simply being me, in this moment, in the life I lead. That is the greatest treasure I have. The greatest treasure I can offer. And it is always there, when I am willing to listen.
Jake Bornstein is a facilitator, coach, strategy consultant and writer. He works with individuals, teams and couples to uncover what makes each person uniquely themselves, and how to work with what they have in service of their essence. His past work includes time on the executive team at the nonprofit Slow Money, as an investment associate at Bridgewater Associates, and as a board member of the neighborhood revitalization group Re:vision. He can be followed on twitter @JLBornstein