On being … what we’re used to

By Ingrid Sapona

I took an extended vacation to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in January. It was one of those vacations that wasn’t about seeing anything or doing anything in particular. It was just about spending time in a warm, sunny city on the ocean. And yet, it did get me thinking …

Puerto Vallarta is a lovely city of about 250,000. There’s a large expatriate community (Canadian and American). Many expats own places there and many more rent for three or four months during the winter. Besides finding all the fast food places you’d expect (McDonald's, Subway, KFC, and so on), there’s even a Walmart, Costco, and a Sam’s Club. You get the picture.

But, for as much as it caters to gringos and to our lifestyle, there are little things that are just done differently from how we do them. I’m not talking about things that can be attributed to different views on what the government should regulate – like being able to walk around pretty much anywhere with a beer or drink, or being able to buy over-the-counter lots of medications that we need prescriptions for. I’m talking about little, everyday things.

For example, one day I wanted eggs so I went to my local convenience store. I saw some behind the counter on an oversize cardboard egg tray like the kind you might see in the kitchen at a restaurant or diner. When I asked for some eggs, the sales clerk asked how many I wanted. Not sure whether they had containers for a half-dozen eggs – actually, not seeing any egg containers at all – I hesitated. Then, just to see what would happen, I said five.

She counted out five and put them in a plastic bag and put the bag on the counter with my other items. After paying, she bagged my stuff, putting the eggs in with everything else. It was up to me to get them home without breaking them. I did, of course, but I was always aware of the fragile goods in my bag. By the end of my stay, however, I was not only accustomed to buying eggs that way, I came to like the idea of being able to buy just the number of eggs I wanted, rather than having to buy them in multiples of six.

Then there are the city buses. They’re privately owned but municipally regulated. In other words, each driver owns his own bus but they’re assigned (or maybe leased) a particular route. There are no printed bus schedules or maps showing the stops. But, in the downtown area, most buses go along only a few of the major streets. So, once you figure out the key streets, it’s kind of straightforward. All you have to do is find a bus stop (not all of them are marked, but a crowd on a corner is as good as a sign) and hop on a bus that goes to, or near, where you want to go.

On the front of each bus – I mean, hand painted right on the front windshield! – is a list of major landmarks the bus goes to. So, for example, the list might include various hotels and other important destinations, like Walmart, Costco, the Airport, the Marina. Sometimes the list is so long, it continues on a side window. You learn to scan the list pretty quickly and decide whether to signal the bus that you want to get on. But, if you’re in doubt, you can always ask the bus driver if he’s going to X.

And then there are the buses themselves. They look like old school buses that have been re-purposed as city buses. As soon as you get on, however, you realize they probably weren’t school buses. For one thing, the seats are rock hard, molded plastic (not the cushy padded benches that most school buses have). Also, there don’t seem to be any kind of shock absorbers. Given that the streets are mostly cobblestone and there are big speed bumps everywhere to slow traffic, they really make you thankful for whatever natural padding you have on your derriere.

Despite cracked windshields, the occasional hole in the floor through which you can see the street below, and doors that don’t seem to close quite right, I’ve never seen one in an accident or broken down on the side of the road. The buses are a very popular way of getting around and the system is widely used – by young, old, local, and expat. The buses may lack in comfort, but they are frequent, reliable, and quite an adventure.

Though the examples I’ve described are admittedly mundane, the point isn’t these particular things. The point is that it was refreshing to notice some of the routine tasks that we do one way – often tacitly assuming it’s the best way – and coming to realize that other ways aren’t necessarily worse, they’re just not what we’re used to.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... without passion

By Ingrid Sapona

No, this column isn’t about the fact that the only reason I had a candlelight dinner last night was because we had a power outage, or the fact that the only thing in my mailbox yesterday was a bunch of bills. Honestly, today’s topic has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day.

The passion I’m referring to is that elusive thing that so many career and life coaches advise that, if pursued, will lead to true happiness, fulfillment, and – of course – maximum earning. You know what I’m talking about – the pop mantra about following your passion…

The topic came up the other day in a webinar I tuned into that featured an interview with Jane Pauley – the one-time anchor of NBC’s Today Show. She has a new book out called "YourLife Calling: Reimagining the Rest of Your Life". To promote the book Pauley is doing some public speaking and one of the alumni associations I belong to put together a webinar hosted by Carol Ross, a career coach and fellow alum.

For this webinar, folks who tuned in could participate by typing questions and comments that were passed on to the speakers, as appropriate. After signing in I began doing a few other things as I sort of half-listened. My ears pricked up when Pauley uttered the phrase “… just follow your passion”. Actually, it wasn’t just my ears that reacted – I’m sure my eyes rolled as I congratulated myself on the accuracy of my prediction that that phrase would come up during the webinar.

Because her book is a series of stories about other peoples’ experiences, she began relaying a story of a guy who thought his passion was X but one day, in almost a flash, he realized his passion was Y and – you guessed it – he dropped X in pursuit of Y. It was kind of the classic story of the wonders of someone following their passion.

But, as she was relaying the story she casually mentioned (and yes, this is a direct quote – I’ve gone back and listened to the archived audio of the webinar), “I don’t personally have a passion that I could fill in the blank.    I think the wisdom of ‘just follow your passion’ is a little overrated and I have to say that because I didn’t have one.” 

I was so shocked when I heard her say that, I honestly thought I mis-heard her. Luckily I noticed that one of my fellow listeners had typed: “What an astonishing comment about not having a passion! I thought everyone but me had one.” And just as I finished reading that comment, someone else typed: “I thought the same!” At which point I too confessed to my fellow participants that I felt the same way.

I always squirm when the discussion turns to peoples’ passion. And, I’ve always known that the topic makes me uncomfortable because I’ve always felt like there must be something seriously wrong with me because I’ve never found anything I’m comfortable calling “my passion”. It’s a huge understatement to say it was refreshing to hear Jane Pauley admit she was never able to name her passion. And of course, it got me thinking more about my embarrassment about admitting the same thing.

In defense of myself – and others who’ve silently sat by, hoping no one will discover that they have nothing they can point to as their passion – I think there are a couple of reasons it’s done a number on us. First is the fact that it’s been touted by so many, so often, and for so long that it’s treated like conventional wisdom. Indeed, the idea that if you find your passion, success will follow has gained such common currency, people make it sound like a career/life syllogism (think: A=B, B=C, so A=C). Of course, I realize the intention behind the idea is good – it’s meant to motivate people to find meaning in their life – but unfortunately, the effect isn’t as universally good as the intent.

Another reason I think some of us have never felt comfortable labelling something as our passion is because of the enormity of the word itself. Surely it should be reserved for something truly special. And does not being able to name something as your passion mean there’s no passion in your life? Perish the thought…  So you can see how, for some of us, “What’s your passion?” is a loaded question.

It’s funny, long ago I realized that one-size-fits-all clothes aren’t necessarily a good thing. Sure, they may fit every figure, but they certainly don’t flatter every figure without a heck of a lot of individual tailoring. I guess it wasn’t until this week that I realized that the same goes for advice that’s essentially one-size-fits all: it might apply to our life in some general sense, but it’s up to each of us to tailor it, or better yet, go for custom made.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona