I recently read Cheryl Strayed's book "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail." Having read Strayed's other book, "Tiny Beautiful Things," I knew about her humanity, her generous heart, and her wisdom.
The Cheryl we meet in "Wild," is a much different Cheryl, however. She's fumbling and lost and often makes "wrong" choices. She does NOT have her shit together.
Who has not, in some way, come out of a difficult experience with a stronger sense of who they are, and an appreciation for their own resilience or endurance?
I consider this a story not just about Cheryl, but about the human experience. It's one of the hero's journeys; what we learn and how we grow when we go through a transition period. It's about putting the past behind you in order to step into a new life.
It starts out with Cheryl, age 26, ending what appears to have been a loving marriage. She is at a crisis point in her life and realizes she needs to figure herself out. She subsequently embarks on a solo three-month hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. As a result, she finds herself and begins to believe in herself again. Getting off the old path of self-destruction, she chooses a new path of almost constant physical pain and challenges. But with the pain comes growth. Who she is at the end of the hike is not the same woman who started it.
There are several metaphors embedded in this story that I think can be applied as life lessons, especially for someone who is going through a career transition period:
Put your past behind you: Cheryl's past included drug abuse, promiscuous sex, and the emotional pain of losing her mother to cancer. It seems to me that Cheryl wants to process the past so that she can move on. Changing careers can be like this. If you have been in a difficult situation because you thought you didn't have a choice -- whether it was feeling abused by a person in authority, not being appreciated, taken advantage of, experiencing a toxic work culture, or maybe it was just that you hated the job so much -- there may be some trauma for you to work through. Some history that you would rather not repeat or experience again in the next phase of your career. Taking some time to reflect allows you to move forward with a clean slate, and see a new possibility. Pull yourself, if you can, out of the situation so that you can begin to leave those demons behind you. Give yourself the space, time or peace of mind to figure out your values, interests, strengths, and who you really are or are meant to be.
Leave behind what you don't need: Cheryl's biggest mistake at the beginning of her journey is packing too many things in her backpack. In fact, the bag is so heavy that she can barely stand up with it on. When she finally does manage it, the straps dig so deeply into her skin that they leave welts on her body. Starting over in a career, or in any area of your life, is easier when you're not weighed down by unnecessary baggage. It might be more mental clutter than anything else, but the important thing is to identify what you no longer need, and leave it behind. What is holding you back?
Order bigger shoes: In order to do what you've never done before, you have to be who you've never been. You have to take on a larger commitment to your dream. Cheryl's boots are too small when she starts out on the hike. Because of the wear and tear on her feet, she leaves them on the mountain and purchases a new pair when she has the chance. The metaphor of changing into a bigger pair of shoes applies very accurately to stepping into a new way of being. The bigger the shoes, the more you can grow. Who you were before is not going to be who you will become by taking on this challenge.
Take what you do need: Not only should you leave behind the things that weigh you down, but you benefit also from taking what you do need. Pack resilience, a belief in yourself, a willingness to grow, healthy connections with others, and plenty of support.
Expect bumps in the road: Hiking the trail is not easy for Cheryl. She is willing to suffer whatever comes her way to make it to the end of the trail. There is the extreme heat, the snow that blocks part of the trail, the loneliness, the fear of being attacked or molested by animals or untrustworthy men. She contends with boots that were too small and then no boots at all, for a portion of the hike. She underestimates how much cash to bring. But she endures and does not give up. When you are in career transition, there are going to be some rough patches. The important part is to keep your eye on the path ahead of you, not behind you. If you continue to move forward despite obstacles and challenges, you will eventually end up in the place you want to be.
Endurance makes you stronger: Cheryl's endurance is astounding. She gets through the ordeal mostly by her own determination and persistence. Like the main character in "The Alchemist," Cheryl is on a pilgrimage, a purifying kind of journey. They say that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. I would add that it is important for that thing to be a healthy kind of challenge. For Cheryl this journey was about recovery from addiction and a self-destructive lifestyle. If you are in career transition and looking to finally have a career you love, you already endured the worst of it. You put in your time, you discovered what didn't make you happy; now it's time to take what you learned from having endured that miserable time and put those lessons to use. If there were aspects of your life you were not able to manage or if you feel you failed, that is a good lesson to learn, too. It helps you to know what you are capable of doing and what you are not meant to do. You owe it to yourself to not give up on yourself, or your vision.
Willingness to receive help: Cheryl make this trek all on her own, and while hiking, she rarely teams up with anyone else on the trail. She hates to ask for help, which earns her the nickname: The Queen of the PCT. While it is admirable for Cheryl to stand on her own two feet and see her way through, there are times when we should be willing to put our burden down and let someone else carry it for us a little while. If only so that we can regain our strength. This isn't about giving up or showing weakness. It is about knowing when to relax and provide self-care. If all we do is run ourselves ragged, then we won't be of any use to ourselves or others who depend on us. While Cheryl loves to believe she doesn’t need or want anyone but herself, she discovers the opposite. She does eventually accept help from some of the other hikers she meets, which may have saved her life.
Don't worry about unexpected detours: Because of the areas of the trail that are snowed in, Cheryl decides to ride the bus to skip over a portion of the trail between Mt. Whitney to Sierra City. While her intention had been to hike almost the entire 2,663 miles of the PCT, she realizes that sometimes you have to accept unexpected detours. This applies to job seekers and those in career transition as well. You may receive some unexpected advice or opportunities or hit a wall and need to find a way around it. That's ok. It's part of life. The best thing to do is to not beat yourself up about it.
Cheryl's heart is open to the possibility that there is more to life than simply making a living or finding one’s next meal. She knows she was meant for something more. She goes through this arduous hike to become who she needs to be. Later, as Dear Sugar, she is able help others who are going through trauma or feeling lost. It changes not only her life, but also the lives of those she touches.
This is a story about transformation through endurance. It is about the letting go of doubts. It is about having an unbreakable spirit. It is about saying a fond goodbye to events and people in one’s past that are gone or who no longer serve. It is about straying, finding your way back to yourself and giving yourself permission to do so.