There are times when we’re ready to change. We run a particular pattern for years, even decades, and then, suddenly, we’re done with it. We’re ready to try something else. We have no idea if or how the new way will work, but we know we’re done with the old way, and there’s no going back.
Me, 12 years old, in my first year of junior high. I was hanging on to my old crowd of friends from elementary school, but I was on the periphery, and being driven out. I was the whipping boy. My “friends” slammed my locker closed, made fun of my clothes (Sears “Toughskins” jeans — anybody remember those?) and were generally shitty to me. Finally, one of them figured out my locker combination and stole one of my textbooks.
The next morning I approached my “group” and said, in short, “You guys used to be my friends, but you’ve been treating me really badly. If that’s how you’re going to treat me, I don’t want to hang out with you anymore.”
Total silence. I walked away and started my new junior high life, which was pretty lonely for a few weeks. But I made new friends — real ones. My last year of junior high was a good one. I got as close to “popular” as a nerdy D&D-playing smart kid can get. And I got some new pants.
Years later I realized the silence, and the immediate cessation of all bullying, was at least partially from shame. They were good kids, all of them, and I think they actually felt bad. The pivot point, for me, was realizing it was better to be alone than to have false friends. I was done with chasing after inclusion at the expense of my self-respect. Turns out I was done with it forever.
A pivot point isn’t quitting a job or relationship (though that might be a side effect). A pivot point is deciding that you’re done with a particular behavior pattern, and committing with your entire being to living another way.
Age 21 in Honolulu, Hawaii. I was on a “planned year off” from UC Davis (a counselor, and my parents, had convinced me not to drop out entirely). I had just started an internship at a dolphin cognition laboratory (at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory). I had fantasized about working with dolphins for years, but now that I was actually doing it, I realized it wasn’t for me. I didn’t have the patience to do scientific research, and I didn’t think it was ethical to keep such intelligent animals in captivity.
But when I thought about quitting the internship, I didn’t like the path I saw ahead of me. I wasn’t ready to go back to school, so what the hell would I do? Kick around the country and try to be a writer? I could see that ending badly.
Pivot point. I decided I was done quitting things just because they weren’t a perfect fit, or easy. I would finish the internship.
I was probably the least productive intern in the history of KBMML, but I met my basic responsibilities (cleaning herring, feeding the dolphins, holding stuff during various experiments) and didn’t get kicked out. I learned a great deal about dolphins. I made some good friendships. Most importantly, I spent hours playing on a synthesizer keyboard that was part of the lab equipment (an old experiment had involved communicating with the dolphins via electronic sounds). Because I stayed, I found something that I was deeply interested in.
After the internship ended, I continued my path of not quitting stuff when things looked a little rocky or cloudy. Instead of dropping out of college, I finished my degree at UC Davis (even graduating with highest honors). Staying at UCD allowed me to have a radio show at KDVS — my most formative music experience to date. Because of that pivot point, I’ve learned to have a default mode of “continue working,” even if I’m not sure where I’m going, or if my efforts will yield any positive results.
It’s pretty obvious when the old way isn’t working, but I don’t know if we can rush a pivot point. They come when they come. We’re not ready until we’re ready, until the old way has beat us down sufficiently, made its scars, taken its pound of flesh.
A few years later, 24 years old, I was living in Berkeley, California. For the first time, I had my own place, work that paid the bills, a car, some keyboards, and a computer. Life was good. Except for relationships. I’d been dumped by a girl that I loved. I’d never been able to make her happy, and I put too much of my own happiness in her hands. Towards the end we were both miserable.
As a newly single guy, I had a few fun flings, but I realized that somehow I needed a fundamentally different way to be in relationships. I decided that the next time I fell in love, I would approach it differently. I was done trying to change myself in order to make a relationship work, and I was done outsourcing responsibility for my own happiness.
It worked! When I met Kia, I resolved to be responsible for my own emotions, and also to not apologize for any of my own quirks. I wouldn’t try to change who I was to make someone else happy. I didn’t play down my nerdiness, or my love of electronic music, or my compulsive need to try to make lists, to create and tweak systems of thinking and living.
It took a few more years for me to learn that it goes both ways — you can’t change other people either, but I eventually learned that lesson too. I learned that accepting the other person as they are, and not trying to change or control them, is a big part of marital happiness (that, and never arguing about sex or money).
When a pivot point does come, and we ignore it, we miss an opportunity to become more alive, more human, more ourselves. We live a more shadowy life, with our hearts tightened up and our minds duller.
But if we respond to the “loud and clear” message that our heart is shouting at our mind, life gets better. And after an adjustment period, life gets much easier.
I don’t know what my next pivot point will be, but I’ll know it when it happens. Those pivot points I described from my own life — I knew the were momentous shifts when they were happening.
What were your own pivot points? Did life get better when you decided to live differently? Any regrets?