Self Determination in the Aisles of Powell's Books

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

I had spent the morning at Powell’s Books, the giant independent bookstore that is the pride of my hometown of Portland, Oregon. I roamed the aisles of towering shelves, perusing new and used books on all subjects, by writers from all walks of life, in a quiet reverie.

Hours later, I arrived home with a new cache of books, one of them – I remember quite distinctly – was Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

I was 25 years old and had recently moved back to Portland from New York City, because I was worn out from living in that crazy city and I missed the trees; because I wanted to live closer to my family; and because I wanted a cheaper, simpler lifestyle that allowed me to work less and write more. I wanted to finally publish my writing. 

A morning at Powell’s was so special because I was freshly enjoying the pleasures unique to home. Plus, being among so many books had fed my imagination, opened it up to countless new possibilities. Despite the weight of all the books in my bag, I was nearly floating when I arrived home.

The telephone rang. It was my boyfriend. He was also an avid reader and I immediately began to tell him about the new titles I had brought home. We often traded books.

I held the used paperback of The Death and Life of Great American Cities in my hand and said, “I spent the morning wondering what kind of writer I will be.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“There are so many possibilities,” I said. “I could write about urban issues like Jane Jacobs, or environmental issues like Edward Abbey. Short stories like Alice Munro. A novel set in Oregon, like Ken Kesey.”

He snorted.

“What?” I asked, taken aback.

“You don’t choose what kind of writer you become.” 

“Why not?”

“You just are whatever writer you are. You don’t choose.”

It was like taking a sharp needle and popping a child’s balloon. I felt suddenly foolish. I considered what he said.

Was it true?

This story has stayed with me a long time. That old boyfriend's words still come back to me occasionally, because they revealed such a significant distinction between us. One that is still really important to me.

I have never been willing to accept that things simply are. I have always believed entirely in an individual's ability to choose -- and to change.

With so many options and possibilities in this life, isn’t it natural that one of the decisions we must make is about who we really want to be? 

Only after we understand who we really want to be can we truly organize our life and work in a meaningful way.

Even further, I believe that everyone should occasionally pause in life to reflect on who it is we’re trying to become. We should take time to fully open ourselves up to possibilities, roaming the shelves of this beautiful world.

Then, we need to sit quietly, with our vision of who and how we want to be, and, yes, choose. Choose where to focus our efforts. Choose what to leave behind. Choose how to spend our time and attention.

This story comes to me now, because I realize that this belief has become the backbone of my coaching work. I help others to create this time to pause. I support them to explore possibilities, create a vision, and then begin to choose. 

Becoming who we want to be, and doing our best work doesn’t just happen. They take reflection and intention.

We choose.