It was a cold winter day. No one wanted to go outside and play. But I insisted on going outside to play in the snow, despite my grandmother’s pleading for me to stay home. I was about seven years old. My mom was working during the day and my father was in Russia on a work contract, so my grandmother took care of me most days.
Winters in Poland are known to be brutal, but during communism, and especially that year, the winter was unusually hard for our family. Hot water was rarely available. Electricity was shut off at least once a week. Coal, to warm up our house, was difficult to get. And my mom couldn’t even buy me a pair of winter boots because of shortages. So I wore a pair that was too small and pinched my toes.
Despite this, I pushed and pushed my grandmother until she gave in and let me go. Of course, as a typical mom and grandmother she worried about my survival in the wind and the cold, so she wrapped me in several layers of wool sweaters, hat and mittens, and a coat two sizes too big, so that only my eyes were peering. Then sent me off into the wild winter wonderland, forcing a thick slice of rye bread with a layer of schmaltz topped with sugar, into my hand.
She was right, not a single soul was wandering outside. Even the black noisy crows were hiding somewhere. It was silent and lonely. I searched for things to do, and the best diversion I could think of was to ride my sled down the hill in front of my house. But after about a dozen times, I got bored of it. I parked my sled on the sidewalk next to my house, and started making snow balls and stacking them up. I became so absorbed by what I was doing that I didn’t notice a big figure standing right next to me.
I turned around and saw a man towering over me. He smiled and said that my mom was calling me and he came here to fetch me. I felt uncomfortable. Something didn’t feel right in my gut. So I didn’t say anything and just stood there frozen.
He kept saying how we need to hurry because my mom will be upset if we’re late. He was very convincing and had a calm voice. Yet something inside kept telling me that this was not right. I deliberated for a moment, and the first thought that came to my head was my grandmother. I was confused and needed her guidance. A sudden urge to run to my grandmother came over me.
I told the man that I need to go home first to tell my grandmother that my mom is calling me. He insisted that he spoke to my grandmother already and that she knows he’s taking me to my mom. He grabbed my hand and we started walking away and across the street. But my gut kept telling me that this was wrong. I don’t know how, but somehow I managed to slip away my arm and started running towards my home. He followed me quickly, but I ran as fast as I could, not looking back, straight for the door. I started yelling, “babciu, babciu” (grandmother in Polish), as loud as I could. She came right away, slightly out of breath and confused, asking me what happened. I told her that a man wants to take me to my mom and that he’s waiting right there. When I turned around, the man was gone. The street was empty. No one was there. But he was right there, I kept insisting to my grandmother. Her face turned somber, but she kept her cool and gently walked me into the house and asked that I stay inside for the rest of the day. I did not fight her this time.
Obey your instincts rather than those who don’t have your best interests at heart.
To this day I remember that feeling in my gut. This overwhelming sensation to get away from this man. Yet, at the same time I remember thinking that I needed to do what my mom wanted me, and go to her as the man instructed. Looking back, I am glad I followed my instinct instead of obeying. As it turned out, my mom was not calling me, did not send a man to fetch me, and that year many children disappeared without a trace in the area.
Stop wasting your energy on going against your nature.
Our instinct can be a powerful friend. And it’s important to listen to it. We often spend time analyzing situations, looking at numbers, facts, pros and cons, but with all that noise, we often forget to listen to our own gut. Or, we choose to ignore the voice inside, because it’s telling us something that we don’t want to hear or admit. So we push, despite of ourselves, to have something that we view as desirable, only to find out later that it makes us unhappy.
As children, our instincts are still pure. There are very few filters in place to muffle the voice inside. Therefore, as in my case, it was easy to hear the alarm sounding off in my gut, telling me to run as fast as I could when a strange man came up to me. But as we get older, the outside noise gets louder and louder, making it difficult to hear what we feel deep inside. As adults, the threats are often not as obvious. They don’t come in the form of some creepy stranger we need to run away from. Instead, the threats are often disguised as alluring situations, but end up leading us into the ditch. We might think that landing a job in a Fortune 500 company is the best thing that ever happened to us, only to find out later that the constant 60 hour work-weeks end up deteriorating our health or damaging our relationships.
Plus, we are told that it’s more sensible to become an accountant, when all we really want is to become an artist or a cowboy. We’re told that to be successful we must have a fancy car, a corner office in a posh building with marble floors, a perfectly sculpted body, and wear designer clothes. In essence, we must have more and more things rather than do more of what makes us excited.
And so we go against our core, because someone else’s expectations are pushing us in the opposite direction. This pressure can come from many sources: cultural, religion, family or friends. Even from television commercials, promising us the ideal life if only we follow their script. If only you buy your girlfriend that diamond ring, your relationship will be better. If only you buy your spouse that luxury car, they will be happier. And if only you drink that particular brand of beer and wear those slim-fit jeans, your parties will get better and the girls will stick to you like glue.
Many of us fall for that script because we see a bunch of smiling people when they have that coveted car or beer in their hands. But it’s not our own script. It’s one written by someone else. Someone who: first of all, works for the company which goal is to sell as many of their latest widgets as possible; second, is not in your shoes, and third, does not care about you as an individual and does not know who you are and what makes you happy, because perhaps they lived hundreds of years ago in a different country and time, when they were drawing up a policy that happens to impact your current life.
Go somewhere quiet and write your own script for happiness.
Only you have the potential to find out what makes you happy. But finding happiness is tough because it requires work to isolate your voice and then even more work to write your own script. Isolating your voice from the chorus can be challenging, because between the constant feed of media messages telling you what should make you happy, and society’s pressures, it is difficult to differentiate between your own voice and everyone else’s. Just like it’s difficult to hear your own self in a crowded bar.
So, if you want to hear yourself, maybe it’s time to step outside of that noisy bar and take a walk. Change the scenery. Take a day off and go on a trip or a hike. Take a vacation. And start tuning into your own frequency on a regular bases. And if you don’t have a lot of practice in writing your own script, it will probably take several versions before you get it right. But keep on trying. Like an artist who is learning to draw a figure, it takes a lot of drafts and years of practice before you get it close to what will please you.
Listen to your instinct and do more of what excites you.
A great way to start: spend more time with the people who excite you; learn more about the topics that excite you; take classes that excite you; read books that excite you; go to places that excite you, and so on. Follow the excitement you feel when you’re about to do something, and let your instinct guide you when to turn or when to move forward.
About the picture: Apple picking
In this picture, I painted an orchard, full of ripe apples ready for picking. A girl found some apples on the ground and is now carrying them away. She does not want to share her apples with anyone and tries to hide them in her arms. A boy also found an apple on the ground, but rather than saving it, he is eating it right away. He does not care for picking apples. He prefers to eat the ones he finds along the way, instead of working hard for them by climbing the tree to gather the juicier ones on top. A boy on the left is making an effort to pick his apples. He stretches his arms as far as he can to reach the apples on the lowest branch, and collects them into his basket. And even though all the apple pickers have apples, they are only picking the ones close to them, while hundreds of delicious and juiciest apples hang out of their reach, still unpicked. The person who either brings a ladder or is willing to climb the tree, will be able to enjoy the best apples.
Opportunities, like those juiciest apples, often can’t be seen or reached from the ground. Sometimes we need a creative solution, like a ladder to help us access what’s on top, and at other times we need to put in hard work, such as climbing the tree to access the top fruit.
In this picture, I also decided not to paint anyone looking up. This is because I wanted to show that the apple pickers can only see the apples that are directly in front of them. They don’t look up and therefore miss all the apples right above them. Similar to our instinct, just because we can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. We just need to adjust our angle, look up once in a while, and we just might find the prize we’ve been searching for, right above our head. Don’t be afraid to look and to listen.