My wife has a ritual of choosing a "word of the year" to live by each January. Plenty of people swear it's a more inspiring (and less demoralizing) practice than setting New Year's resolutions, but I never had much interest in the tradition until a few years ago.
That's when I picked my first-ever word of the year: settle.
My wife was appalled and initially thought I was making a mockery of her tradition. After all, haven't we always been taught that settling is for suckers? As Americans, it is our destiny to go out and will our dreams into reality through sheer determination and never quitting, right?
It certainly sounds counterintuitive as a word of the year. We think of "settling" as akin to giving up on our dreams.
But that was part of my plan: I had a few dreams I was ready to finally give up. And not because I'm a quitter or lazy or weak or whatever the flip side of the old American dream-chasing ethos is.
I was ready to give up those dreams because I had never really stopped to consider whether they were actually a good fit for me, or what I really wanted, or worth the sacrifices I might need to make.
We're often encouraged to form our aspirations at a shockingly young age. I was writing letters to radio and TV stations in middle school essentially demanding to be put on the air, otherwise the station might regret it because I was so clearly going to be a star one day. (I believe I actually phrased it that way while demanding an internship in one letter. Cringe along with me...)
I held on to this all-too-common dream for theatrically inclined youth of some sort of stardom for decades. During that time period I actually got to know myself, which you might know is a painfully slow process.
It turns out that I'm a closet introvert who expresses myself much better when I have the time to craft words to be read rather than performing them.
I actually knew the life of a writer made sense for me when I spent one particularly beautiful summer after fifth grade inside writing historical fiction. Notably, while other kids were outside and I was inside on my Commodore 64 word processing program, I had no sense of whatever the 1980s version of FOMO was.
But the solitary life of a writer is not nearly as celebrated by our society as that of gregarious, extroverted TV personalities, pop stars and other celebrities.
I was making a living as professional writer before I even graduated college. As I moved into my thirties I had developed a solid career and was supporting my family with writing that I truly enjoyed.
Even still, I had a near daily ritual of spending my little free time looking for other opportunities to help fill a hole in my life that had been dug deep earlier in life by a mismatched ambition.
The thing is, I'm not a bad performer. I've done stand-up and improv comedy, spoken word, storytelling, given public lectures and done lots of radio and a little bit of television.
However, if I'm really honest with myself, I realized when I was in college that I was never going to be a great performer. I was a runner-up in a stand-up comedy competition back then, losing to my good friend and improv partner: the thoroughly extroverted Jimmy Callahan, who has the annoying quality of being full of both talent and integrity.
Jimmy can kick the charisma and stage presence into a higher gear that I just don't have.
Now, I'm not going to sit here and call myself a great writer, but I will tell you my writing has enabled me to do some pretty awesome things, and on my own terms, which can be invaluable for an introvert.
Around the time I was asked to pick that word of the year, I was coming to the conclusion that it was time to give up on that old ambition that never really fit that well to begin with.
So my word was settle. But don't misunderstand. I have no intention of settling for less, rather I am finally ready to settle into myself.