“It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.” – E. E Cummings
A couple of years ago, I signed up for an improv acting class. For my final monologue, I choose a scene from the classic movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner because it struck a chord. It was the scene between Sidney Poitier’s character, Dr. John Prentice, and his father, where Dr. Prentice tries to reason with him about his choice to be romantically involved with a white woman. His father is resolute in his stance on the issue, claiming that it isn’t something that a man of color should do and that his son is making a big mistake.
What I loved most about this passionate exchange is the courage and strength that Dr. Prentice demonstrates as he refuses to succumb to the pressures of his family and community. He was a trailblazer, determined to let go of the emotional baggage of his ancestors who were so used to being oppressed that they were incapable of choosing differently for a better future.
His decision to follow his heart was influenced by a fundamental shift to see beyond his racial identity and see himself simply as a man. He respectfully says to his father: “Dad, you’re my father. I’m your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”
I chose this scene because I could relate to Poitier’s character. In my life, I’ve made unconventional choices that challenged cultural norms and the familial beliefs I grew up with. My choice to move abroad to get both a bachelors and masters degree, my choice to avoid certain foods, my choice in friends, to name a few have, at times, baffled my community. As a millennial, and from a lineage of immigrants and freedom fighters, I’m hardly ever afraid to color outside the lines and break conventions that I feel could limit my potential and development.
But what constitutes an unconventional choice? Here’s a definition from Vocabulary.com:
“To be unconventional is to act, dress, speak, or otherwise exist out of the bounds of cultural norms. If you eat cheeseburgers for breakfast, that’s somewhat unconventional. Anything that’s nonconformist or out of the ordinary can be described as unconventional. Every culture has its own conventions — or norms — and what may be unconventional in one region might be typical in another. The perception of what’s unconventional is determined by context.”
What’s important to note here is that the unconventional choices that I’m writing about are those that are ethical and done with the intention to better oneself, one’s community, and sometimes, even the world. It’s futile and silly to live your life like a rebel without a cause, breaking the rules and creating drama to satiate a need for cheap thrills and attention.
Unconventional choices that are rooted from a place of inner knowing, and a moral compass that points you towards what’s ethically right or wrong, are the kind that will lead to self-actualization and positive, lasting change. These are the choices that require bravery to deal with the fallout that will result from freeing yourself from dogmatic rules and beliefs that held you and your loved ones captive.
We have a plethora of historical, and contemporary, role models to choose from. In every era, there are revolutionary figures who chose differently and went against the conventions of their time, even while facing rebuke (or death) from their adversaries. Think of Galileo Galilei whose commitment to his scientific discoveries made him willing to face the threats of the Orthodox Church. Rosa Parks, who defiantly refused to give up her bus seat, sparking mass protest that eventually led to the end of segregation. Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot who chose to fly solo across the Atlantic.
Yet not everyone is capable of breaking away from conventional belief systems. As human beings, we’re instinctively driven by our need to belong and accepted by others – sometimes at the cost of our own personal advancement. This fear of becoming a social pariah coupled with a lack of self-awareness makes it a herculean task to choose a different path to those around us.
I’ve found that the only way to release this fear is to look within and strengthen our understanding of who we are and what’s important to us. We always have a choice to live differently, even if it initially requires sacrifice and a period of discomfort. We need to trust ourselves and realize that we are our own best counsel. No one knows us better than we know ourselves.
Here are four important things that I’ve learned from making unconventional life choices:
1. Most people won’t understand, so focus on the ones who do: When you make unconventional choices you have to be prepared to deal with people who will be uncomfortable with your decisions and won’t take you seriously. Most of the times it’s because they’re projecting their own fears and worries onto you, or they simply don’t want you to move on and change. You might even come across those who’ll be threatened by your growth and progress and will try their best to sabotage your efforts. This is when you need to demonstrate grit and remain steadfast in your decisions. Seek out a community or group of individuals who can support you, and offer you constructive advice that will help you advance your goals.
2. The risk that you take is always worth it, even if it doesn’t turn out as you hoped: Whether the outcome of your unconventional choices turns out to be favorable or not is irrelevant. Based on my experiences, I’ve found that even if I didn’t get the results I had hoped for, I felt empowered by the fact that I tried my best and was brave enough to put myself out there. In these situations, I ensure that I extract the lessons and the higher message, incorporating it into my knowledge on the road to self-realization. As Buddha said “Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.”
3. Discomfort is a sign that you are growing and learning: The discomfort that I’ve felt while moving forward with certain “scary” choices has ranged between mild discomfort (the equivalent of getting out of bed at 6am for a morning run) to heart-pounding fear (when you come face to face with a lion). What helped me in managing these turbulent emotions was finding my center, breathing deep into the pain, and placating myself with the knowledge that what I was doing was for my own good. Just as how lifting heavy weights during a training session hurts, you know that the results of a strong, healthy, and lean body will be totally worth it. Choices that get you out of your comfort zone will build your courage and help your spirit flourish.
4. You become a role model for others and pave the way for change: Many pioneers were considered crazy by their peers when they first decided to veer away from convention. But eventually, people came to see that what they did was beneficial to all. It was only after some time had passed that bewilderment turned to admiration because most people lack the strength, guts, and initiative to make such sweeping changes. Gandhi’s policy of non-violence and ahimsa which means “compassion” and “not to injure” in his efforts to free India from British rule was mocked by the British in the beginning. But, as Gandhi persisted, guided by his ideals, the colonizers began to take him seriously. His non-violent stance even influenced other leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and former US president, Barack Obama.
The greatest power that you have is the power of choice. Wield this power like a sword to cut through frivolity so that you can get to the heart of the matter. Use the power of your choices to sculpt the masterpiece of your life, even if that requires you to step away from convention and stand up for your own truth. The world needs you to be brave and step up!
All my best on your journey,
Question: What have you learned from making unconventional choices in your life? Would you do it again?