June 1991, I can still remember the bright sunny morning, driving under the arch of the wooden Keystone Wye bridge with the feeling of delight and a new found sense of freedom. I was on my way to my first official job having passed my driver’s test two month’s prior.
Keystone was and still is a small, ex mining town in the Black Hills of South Dakota and about 20 minutes from where I grew up in Rapid City. When I say small, I mean it has a population of 340 year-round residents. Keystone’s origins can be traced back to 1883, when it was founded as a mining settlement and later became one of the richest gold-mining areas in the Black Hills.
For the three months of summer, I would drive my light blue Honda Civic Hatchback to Keystone and clock in (I can still remember the time card machine chomping down on my card— there was no way to cheat it if you were late) at 7am and chomping out at 12noon.
Even though I was just cleaning hotel rooms at the not so glamorous Rushmore Express, and getting up at the crack of dawn, I felt liberated. At the ripe old age of 14 years old (yes it is legal in some states to get a full licence at 14 years old), I was proud to be earning money for myself. I was finally grown up — I had transitioned into the world of employment; or as us Americans have been sold, into the land of opportunity. Saying that, I know now my race to adulthood was based on achieving, pleasing others and escaping some aspects of home. In any case, it felt brave and exhilarating.
Like most people, I am both the same and completely different from my 14 year old self. Who we are and what we do are so connected but yet when we are growing up, we are usually asked ‘what do you want to do or become?, not ‘who are you?’. Maybe because most perceive young people can’t really know who they are; but I think it is mostly because we have based our career cultures around chasing outside things and to seek approval. We are rarely encouraged to, or shown how to go inward.
For example, have a quick search for career path and you get neatly wrapped up choices — as if we all fit into ’10’ different career boxes. At best, you will get reassured that your career path might not be linear but winding. Most career advice centres around how to get noticed, or go that extra mile and how to have a CV which stands out. This approach focuses on all of the details and misses out the big picture.
Jonathan Fields, founder of the Good Life Project has developed a business around supporting a good working life.
“Work that lets us wake up in the morning and know, deep down, we’re doing what we’re here to do. Work that sets us ablaze with purpose and, fully-expressed in a healthy way, becomes a mainline to meaning, a pathway to that transcendent state of flow, and a gateway to connection and joy. Put another way, work that “sparks” us. We call this imprint your ‘Sparketype‘ (well worth doing their free test if this is of interest to you). Your Sparketype reveals the essential nature of the work you’re here to do. Once you discover it, there is an immediate, intuitive knowing. An undeniable truth that explains so many past choices and outcomes, and empowers you to contribute to the world on a very different level. To spark your life, and ignite those around you.”
So at 14 did I know what I wanted to do because I knew my sparktype? No of course not, but I bet if I was asked what brings me joy or when do I feel most alive, my career journey would have looked differently.
Who gets asked this growing up or even as an adult? Most of the time, at least in my memory, I was told what to feel, not asked how I wanted to feel. Imagine if we were asked, ‘how do you want to feel as a student’, or ‘how do you want to feel as an employee in this company’ or ‘how do you want to feel in this relationship’? These are much better questions than what do you want to be when you grow up, or what kind of job do you want to have, or what kind of partner do you want.
The other good question we should ask ourselves, especially when we are adults is ‘Where does it hurt’? What do you need to attend to so that you can better answer the question, who am I and what do I want to do? Civil rights legend Ruby Sales learned to ask “Where does it hurt?” because it’s a question that drives to the heart of the matter — and a question we scarcely know how to ask in public life now. Sales says we must be as clear about what we love as about what we hate if we want to make change.
Jonathan goes on to say you should think of your life as three buckets; vitality, (the state of your mind and body), connection (relationships) and contribution (how you contribute to the world). The fuller your buckets, the better your life. How to fill up those buckets and finding ways of stopping any leaks is in the doing. That takes effort, awareness, intention, and I for one in up for that work. Looking after those buckets should be the challenge of life, not figuring out the importance of the buckets in the first place. How can we align our culture and education better or maybe we are in the process of doing so already? Hopefully the post industrialised society with its increased valuation of knowledge will go even further, or rather back to its centre, the importance of all living things.
Perhaps that joyful freedom and itch for adventure was ignited with that first job. That pairing of freedom and work might have been what later led me to move 2000 miles to North Carolina and again a further 3,000 miles to settle here in Scotland. I love that my working life started with that journey to Keystone and the significance of a keystone. It is the most important stone — a bridge or stone arch gains its stability from the placement of the keystone and holds all of the other stones in place. I believe my curiosity and commitment to my working life was started back then. Maybe the keystone has finally just been placed and all the other bits are now held and strengthened — that feeling of freedom and exhilaration fortified.
In some ways, that drive on US 16 represents all of me so well. Portions of that road are called the Keystone Wye and portions are known as the Iron Mountain Road. The highway runs near Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and its eastern line extends to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, near the edge of Badlands National Park.
I no longer think of my career as a destination but more of a mix of the new, the sacred, the wild, the unknown and most of all, the beautiful, long, winding road.