Growing Up Gillikin

He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision.  — John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

When did you become a grown-up?

I thought about that question over the weekend. 

As children, our decisions are made for us.  To be sure, we may have some trivial option presented — a blue toothbrush or a red one? — but for the most part, our lives are controlled first by our parents, and then by the collective non-wisdom of our pre-teen peer groups. 

As we age, we individuate; we develop core identities and make decisions on our own.  We learn to establish autonomy through deciding what we accept and reject from our friends, family, and larger culture.  At some point, in mental terms quite unrelated to our biological development, we pass over the threshold of adolescence and take unqualified responsibility for the direction of our own lives.

I think some people never really do cross the emotional and psychological hurdle into adulthood.  They are content to do what everyone else does, and don’t exercise independence of thought on the really big questions in life.  They may delude themselves into thinking that they are unique, but they are as snowflakes in a blizzard — not quite identical in appearance, but comprised of the same basic materials in the same basic order.  The whole lets-get-married-and-have-babies-and-live-in-the-suburbs thing comes to mind.  So does the I’m-too-cowardly-to-achieve-my-potential routine.

Others are so eager to be different that they go to extremes to prove the point.  I think of the teen goth/emo subcultures, for instance, or the thirtysomethings who are covered head-to-toe with ink and metal.  Or, more vexingly, the phenomenon of the urban hipster, so eager to be different that his herd is merely more gaily arrayed than the others.

But life ain’t so simple as just appearing the adult; there is a social component to the maturing process that cannot be overlooked.  It occurred to me that much of who I am as a person has been kept carefully hidden from most people.  Some have greater insight than others, but no one really has the full story, and I suspect that encouraging a fuller understanding might be more trouble than it’s worth.  To some degree, I have stood with a foot in both the adult and the pre-adult worlds, unable (until recently) to decide upon a path leading to the past tense of the "who do you want to be when you grow up" question.

Which is why, as I’m trying to lay the groundwork for a departure from the hospital’s employ, the seriousness of my present condition hits home.  I’m typing this, for example, from my desk — in my office.  The office for which I’ve signed a commercial lease in the Heartside district of Grand Rapids.  The office being served by commercial-grade DSL and multi-line business telephony from AT&T.  The office with my name and corporate logo on the front door.

I’ve built a company; there’s probably only about a week of work left in the "prep" phase before I am comfortable in beginning wide-scale solicitation of new clients.  In the spirit of Project 810, I’ve been actively looking at boats — in fact, there’s a nice little hull for sale in nearby Muskegon that has promise.  I’m cutting the ties that have held me in place for 31 years, and as I’m in the homestretch, it occurred to me:  I’m actually doing this.

Scary.  Really, really, really scary, because with exceptions I can count on my fingers (Stacie and Callista, for sure, and perhaps Rick and Duane and Brian and Emilie) the number of people who get it about my chosen path is small.  And that makes the "social" part of this all the more challenging.

I’ve recently subscribed to about a dozen new magazines, including Outside.  I like this periodical; it captures my outlook perfectly.  As I peruse these monthly bundles of printed delight, I see people younger than I who have accomplished more, done more, lived more than I, and I can’t tell if I’m full of envy or respect.  Yet I’m thrilled to start walking down their path, at long last.

Three years ago, I was a 270-pound tub of solid lard.  My idea of fun was to stay at home, alone, in a less-than-stellar apartment in Kentwood.  I’d have a large pizza and box of chicken strips delivered, then I’d haul out a bag of Doritos and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.  I’d watch TV for up to eight hours at a stretch, typically sci-fi or military documentaries.  Or play video games.  Or view pornography online.  Or drive around aimlessly, stopping at one fast-food joint after another.  I was content to do my job at the hospital, and enjoy the same ephemeral pleasures over and over and over again, and to trick myself into thinking that I’d somehow magically catch a break "someday."  My life was 100 percent aspiration, 0 percent perspiration.

There was, in a sense, an unbroken line of psychological development from my mid-teens through, oh, age 28 or so.  Although the details changed over a decade and a half, the essentials were relatively fixed.  I was plagued by the perfectly immobilizing mix of arrogance and fear that leads to a higher valuation of the self than one’s objective situation would warrant, but which precludes the ego from reconciling the discrepancy.  I still, in vague ways, considered myself superior, and that one day — a day of my choosing, of course — I’d do or be something different.  Yet my circumstances gave the lie to my self-perception — a lie that I sensed but scrupulously avoided.

Then, something happened.  I’m not sure what the trigger point was, but within a six-week period, everything changed.  I walked away from Western Michigan University, from the Herald and grad school.  I nearly choked to death on a glutton’s breakfast, prompting my first engagement of a physician in a decade.  My brother and his lovely wife brought a perfect baby boy into the world. 

I was a bit slow to appreciate the long-term impact of these three events.  The most noticeable aftereffect was rapid weight loss; I shed 110 pounds in about nine months.  But doing that had other implications, less obvious to others.  My testosterone levels shot through the roof, helping me to realize that I really did have an aggressive, masculine side, and that he was eager to make up for lost time.  I actually started dating, albeit awkwardly at first (and heaven help me, why are all the beautiful women who are attracted to me so damned psychotic?).  I got fit — eight-mile runs became routine, and now I study two martial arts.  I had to come to terms with a host of issues I had previously let fester — my life’s goals, my limitations, my identity as a social and sexual being.

Yet all of those developments still left me half-done.  I had engineered the physical and attitudinal changes, but I was still very much a man without a functioning teleology.

The "other shoe" dropped early last October.  For months, when I went to write at Kava House, I’d update my list of things to do.  The list started to increase in scope, moving from a gotta-do-this-by-Friday thing to a goal-for-next-year thing.  As I reflected more and more on the big things I wanted to do, I realized that these activities were a reflection of a very different personality than the one I used to possess.  I really believe that much of the psychological changes I’ve experienced have been, to some degree, hormonal — and I’m still coming to terms with what it all means.  Sheila and I talked about women who have hysterectomies; they experience a wide array of changes, physical and mental, because of the immediate effective onset of menopause.  I experienced something similar, with the massive flood of testosterone that began with simultaneous radical weight loss and intense aerobic exercise.

Anyway, last October, I worked on the to-do list with an eye toward what I wanted to accomplish after my return from Las Vegas, when I experienced a blinding flash of the obvious:  All the existential angst I felt about my place in the world was a byproduct of having no clear path.  Yet, for the first time, I began to understand just what path I wanted to take.  Hence the birth of the whimsically named Project 810.

Yes, I’ve planned big before, and failed to execute.  This is different.  The fact that I’m sitting in my own 950-square-foot office tells me it’s different.  The fact that I got up this morning at the ass crack of dawn to be in Grand Ledge at 7 a.m. for Tony’s BNI meeting tells me it’s different.  The fact that two weeks ago, I was prepared to drop everything and drive to Massachusetts to pick up a sailboat tells me it’s different.

Only one hurdle left.

Just one.

Will I have the courage to send out my first batch of marketing materials this weekend?

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