If my sister’s life were a movie, turning 30 should have been the happy ending. Raised in a rural farming community, my sister studied hard and successfully entered a competitive pre-med college program. From there, she went on to medical school, working a 3-month internship at NASA during those years. She blazed through her residency, then landed her first job as a full-time doctor in a town she loved. At 30, she looked poised to take on the world. Curtain call, end of story.

And yet, my sister was not happy.

Our culture treats many types of change as positive signs of growth and prosperity. There’s a reason why when someone meets you for the first time, he asks you a few key questions. What’s your job? We believe your job tells us something integral about you. How educated you are. How successful you are. If you answer “doctor,” like my sister, we automatically assume that you are well off and happy. If you answer “unemployed,” we often believe the opposite.

It’s not just job status that defines us. Someone may ask you about your personal life. Are you married or single? The former implies happiness, the latter, maybe not. How about kids? If you have a few, one might assume you’re happy. If you’re older and don’t have any, maybe they worry your “biological clock is ticking.”

People love stories, and there is a story that many of us have been told which outlines a pattern for a successful life. It goes something like this: Be a good student when you’re young. Study hard. Earn a practical degree with lots of earning potential. Get a great job. Marry. Have kids. Retire. Enjoy.

It’s actually not a bad story. I know many people, people that I love and respect, who have followed this formula, and they are indeed happy and successful.

But then there are people like my sister, who found herself with a great education and a fantastic job, but she wasn’t happy. Coming straight out of college with a decent amount of debt, she took a grueling job that worked her 60-80 hours per week. She felt stressed, overtired, and perhaps worst of all, unable to spend as much time with her patients as she liked. She burned out after a few years, wondering if she had chosen the wrong career after all.

If you don’t like your story, how do you go about re-writing it? Like any good author, it takes many drafts and a lot of trial and error. My sister tried a variety of things. She moved back home and wrote screenplays, winning awards and getting one play produced by a local college. When that didn’t fulfill her, she taught anatomy at a nursing school. When that still didn’t quite pan out, she went back to being a doctor, only this time she found part-time work at a small practice where she has more say in her patient care. It doesn’t pay as much, but her job satisfaction couldn’t be greater. Career-wise, she has found the place she wants to be.

Still far from fulfilled, my sister decided to go through several years of in vitro fertilization and ended up having beautiful twin boys. She’s raising them as a single mother without the aid of “the right guy” and loving every minute of it, despite how much she stands out in the rural community she lives in.

My sister’s story will not end here. It will continue to grow and change. Given her history and personality, I have a feeling her story will unfold to be as unique and adventurous as she is.

So remember: no matter what anybody tells you, you are in charge of your own story. It doesn’t matter if it is a traditional tale or something more varied. It doesn’t matter if the people around you approve or disapprove of your job or relationship status. What does matter is how you view your life, and the journey you take while writing it.

Photo by John O’Nolan

Deborah Fike

Deborah Fike is the Director of Educational Outreach for Spotkin, an educational games company that marries fun with learning.  She’s also the founder of Avalon Labs, which provides marketing consultations and writing services for start-ups and online businesses.   She carves out a significant portion of her time to raising her two younger daughters.

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