When my book came out a few months ago, I got asked the same question at the end of every interview: “What’s next?”
It’s a reasonable question, plump with the potency that we missed so sorely during the pandemic. But it always made me freeze up with discomfort: I had just spent 13 months without being visited once by inspiration or ideas, plus a few pre-pandemic creative slump months—for which I took a much-anticipated sabbatical cut short by border closures.
Sometimes I made an on-the-nose joke: What’s next? Hopefully leaving my house! But after hearing secondhand irritation from my friend about this increasingly-dreaded question (“You just wrote a book! Why can’t we just focus on that?”), I began answering honestly: I don’t know.
Most often, I could tell that it made the exchange so uncomfortable that I had to quickly amend it: “…but I’m excited to find out!”
Thinking about it with total detachment, it was almost comical to me that we’d just spent this entire year in Uncertain Times—seemingly quite practiced at it, at this point—only to face the total discomfort with the fact that this creative person didn’t know what her next step was. Whenever I left “I don’t know” stand alone as a full sentence, the look of terror on the interviewer’s face was more than I could bear.
After some reflection, I realized that perhaps I dug my own grave with this one. I frequently get asked variations on the same question: What’s your best advice for your younger self, or anyone in their 20s? And I give variations of the same answer: Know who you are and what you want. Figure out what you want, what your metrics of success are, and you’ll be set up for a life of success on your terms.
I still believe that self-awareness is our greatest tool, but I’ve been rethinking everything I’ve ever preached about knowing exactly who you are and exactly what you want. My relationship with knowing in general has been on the rocks since March 2020. Hearing “uncertain times” over and over, I kept wondering: What are certain times? What do those look like? I suspect that many of us collectively realized that certainty is an illusion, but I’m still seeing it everywhere in the zeitgeist:
There are so many books about how to be a badass boss bitch who knows who you are, what you’re worth, what you want, and how you’re going to get it. There aren’t a lot of books that honor the feeling “I’m not really sure of myself right now.”
But what about when the rug is pulled out from underneath you and pretense slips away, and we can only be the essence of who we are: small, tender; unsure of: the day our partner may leave us, the day we hear our next favorite song for the first time, the day that our world crashes down, the day we meet the best friend who will accompany our next three decades, the day we die. We can run our finger along a calendar and guess which days will matter to us in the future, and we have no idea.
“Knowledge is power”: So what do we do when we don’t have it? Who are we without certainty? When we say “I don’t know,” are we not powerful? Intuitively, I say no. But in cultural context, I’m not sure what powerful uncertainty looks like.
So, as usual, I look to the Mystics: both ancient and modern. I think about Anthony Bourdain, who said that there was tremendous power in experimentation.
I think of Rumi, who wrote, ‘Be helpless, dumbfounded, Unable to say yes your no. Then a stretcher will come from grace to gather us up.’
I think of Van Gogh, who spoke of the night being much more colorful and interesting than the day: the beauty of mystery.
I think about the times that certainty hasn’t served me. I once referred to a relationship as “new” and “early” because we were only two months in; little did I know the entire span of the relationship would be two and a half months. I thought we were in the relationship’s infancy; really we were barreling toward its demise. The first friend of mine he met was actually the last of my friends he met; the very early declarations of affection turned out to be the most intense we ever uttered.
I think about that when I say, with certainty, that I’m “still young,” “early in my career,” the other things we tell ourselves to assume control over our lives. I referred to a quarter-life-crisis at 25, not knowing if that might in fact be the middle of my life. I don’t say all this to bum anyone out; I say it to give us some freedom from knowing exactly who we are and what we want. We don’t know which day we’re going to die! Therefore, we actually know very little about ourselves—no matter how much we journal and refer to ourselves as a badass.
If we actually don’t know exactly who we are and what we want, then how do we know what matters to us? Well, I’d argue that uncertain times point us exactly there. When we find ourselves in a silence, a pause, an ending, that’s when our values become crystal clear and our list of contacts edits itself. The uncertainty illuminates what and who matters to us most. Isn’t that more important than knowing “What’s next?”
“Know what you want” may be the current definition of empowerment, but “Know how you’d like to spend your energy” is perhaps a more mystical approach to a completely uncertain existence.
Some questions to ask instead of “What’s next for me” might be:
What makes me feel alive?
Who in my life is nourishing to be around?
How do I behave when nobody’s watching?
Are my actions in alignment with what’s important to me?
What am I wondering about?
I’m still curious what ‘powerful uncertainty’ really looks like, but I think it begins with a confident “I don’t know.” Let it be a full sentence. Say it with eye contact. Let it convey curiosity, an interest in the questioning, a love of the unknown, a comfort in the dark.
One of my favorite quotes is 'The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder’ by GK Chesterton. There is so much to not know, and there’s so much beauty in the haze. I’m on a presumably one-woman mission to let “I don’t know” be a full and satisfying answer, but if anyone wants to join me, I’ll be appreciative of any fellow wanters of wonder.