I never set out to lead an unconventional life.
In fact, for the first 35 years of my life, I led a fairly typical life, the kind that most of us are expected to lead by our parents and by society.
Academically, I excelled in high school and went straight to college where I continued to excel. From there, I went directly to graduate school in counseling psychology, working toward a Ph.D.
Ultimately, the field of psychology wasn’t a good fit for me. After taking a year off, working and saving up money, I returned to graduate school. This time my chosen field was public policy.
When I finished my masters degree, I found a job working for the U.S. government doing research on food and nutrition programs. Finally done with school, I felt like my life had just begun!
It wasn’t long, though until I realized that I wasn’t cut out for this type of work—sitting in a cubicle, in front of a computer, day after day after day. I looked around the office and saw long-term employees who looked like zombies. I didn’t want to become a zombie!
Three years into the job, I decided that I needed to do something radically different with my life. It took another three years before I actually worked up the courage to take the leap, jumping off into the unknown, having no definite plans for what was next in my life.
I wasn’t really scared despite the uncertainty of what lie ahead. I knew that my family and friends thought I was crazy, giving up a comfortable, secure job. But in my heart, I couldn’t go on living the way I was. My soul was dying, piece by piece.
It’s been 10 years since I took that leap. In that time, here’s a sample of what I’ve done with my life:
Lived in a yoga center in Pennsylvania
Lived in a spiritual retreat center In Wisconsin
Studied meditation in Thailand
Traveled through Central America, South America and Eastern Europe
Driven across the United States twice
Volunteered with street children in Mexico and cancer patients in the Philippines
Regardless of where you are in your life—whether you’re already living an unconventional life or whether it’s something you’re contemplating for the future—I wanted to share some lessons that I’ve learned over the past 10 years.
Find your community.
No matter what path you take in life, you need people in your life who inspire you and who are taking a similar path. That’s even more true if you decide to take the road less traveled.
The people who form your community don’t need to be part of your daily life. If they are, that’s wonderful.
But they don’t have to be. Just knowing that there are others out there who have chosen to lead an unconventional life can be a great source of inspiration for those moments when doubt starts to creep in.
Your community doesn’t even need to be people you personally know. You can draw inspiration from people you know virtually, people in books or movies, or people who lived a long time ago and who have already passed away.
The important thing is knowing that you’re not alone, that there are others out there just like you. That you’re part of a great tradition, going back many, many centuries.
Wherever you go, there you are.
Breaking away from the conventional life won’t solve all of your problems. Whatever negative energy you have in your life, whatever unresolved issues you’re carrying with you, will come right along for the ride.
If you assume that breaking away and leading an unconventional life is going to be pure bliss, I can guarantee you’re going to be disappointed. Greatly disappointed. You’ll still be experiencing the same old issues, just in brand new environments. Work on yourself, no matter where you are.
Don’t be afraid to temporarily return.
Based on what I wrote above, you might think that once I quit my job with the U.S. government, I never looked back. You’d be wrong.
Along the way, I’ve returned to doing similar work twice, even going back to the same office that I first quit 10 years ago. You might think that’s odd. You’re probably thinking: “Why would you bother going back to something you hated?”
Here’s the thing. When you step off the normal life path that most people follow, you don’t always know what you’re getting yourself into. There are very few road markers to help you find your way, which means that sometimes you might get a bit lost along the way and need to make a strategic retreat, back to the comfort and security of familiar people and experiences.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with returning to the comfortable in order to recharge and reorient yourself. Just make sure you stay committed to your longer term goal of following your own path.
Stay in touch with those who love and support you.
Just because you’ve decided to lead an unconventional life, doesn’t mean you have to completely cut ties with your former life.
As an example, my parents and my older sister have lived their entire lives in the same small city in Ohio. The choices I’ve made over the past 10 years are radically different from how they’ve chosen to lead their lives. And yet I know that they wholeheartedly support me and love me and will always be there for me when I need them.
When you step off the conventional path, there may be relationships that you need to let go of. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that there’s nothing worthwhile from your former life. Chances are there are plenty of relationships that you can bring into your present.
Keep looking until you find your path.
My best advice for you is don’t give up. If you feel you’re called to lead an unconventional life, then keep looking until you find a path that strikes a chord with your heart. You may need to try several times until you find something that fits.
And while it’s important to find your tribe, to find people who inspire you, you also need to find your own path. The people in your tribe have their own unique path, and their path isn’t yours.
You also have your own unique path. Find it, embrace it, live it.
This post originally appeared on Elephant Journal under the title “5 Steps: How To Really Make Our Lives Our Own“.