About three years ago, I was knee deep in grief about my father’s death. I was about six months into my new life without him, and I was feeling even more confused about life than the day he had died. All that I had assumed about who I was (life coach and workshop leader), where I was going (working with colleagues on exciting leadership programs around the world) and what I was here to do (showing how authentic vulnerability is an essential quality of leadership) had been flung up into the air and it was a jumbled mess.
I was now actively taking care of my father’s legacy (he was the comedian George Carlin), immersed in the world of the entertainment industry after leaving it behind five years earlier, and being embraced by a comedy community that I had never connected with before. Although this may sound thrilling and most exciting, I felt lost in a desert without a map. I spoke with a wise friend and teacher Patrick Ryan about this. I really wanted Patrick to whip out a fresh map for me one with roads clearly marked, and an X on the spot where the treasure could be easily found, and say, “All you have to do is go here, turn left, veer right, and you can’t miss it.” Instead, in a typical Patrick way he said, “Well, your job now is to be lost in the desert and report back to us what it is like there.” A rush of relief swam through my body. Strange.
Most of my life I have felt embattled between my strategic mind, with its plans, ideas and “maps,” and the messiness of life, with its surprises, confusions and organic unfolding. I have always felt that the only way to be successful was to figure out the exact steps that are needed to get from here to there, and keep your head down and march along dutifully. But inevitably, I would immediately hate the drudgery of this approach. This would lead me to self-destructive behaviors that would undermine my grand plan, and then I would hate myself for ruining my chances of success. I would then turn to the “anything goes” approach to life, letting the externals of events and others’ opinions shape my trajectory. Although less drudgery was involved with this strategy, the amount of internal chaos it created was always intolerable too.
As I took Patrick’s words to heart and was willing to witness where I found my self in this new life landscape fatherless, motherless (I lost my mom in 1997), and with a whole new pile of life opportunities, I knew that somewhere between my strategic mind and the messiness of life there was a map. I knew that it would not be accessible unless I was willing to be still, witness, listen, feel my inner most urges, and allow visions of possibility to emerge organically.
Three years later, last Wednesday, in fact, I woke up to find that the New York Times wanted to talk to me. It seems that some path had emerged in my life these last few years and had lead me to an “X on a map” – the premiere of my radio show The Kelly Carlin Show on SiriusXM satellite radio. The funny thing is that if you were to pick up that map, you would not see a clearly marked road to “somewhere.” Instead you’d only see where I have been. You see, I now know you can’t make a map until you have traversed the territory. You can’t show the way, until you have walked the way. And most importantly, you can’t buy, make or chart a map of the unknown. It’s just not possible. And this is a huge relief to me.