The Imagined Self: Not Succumbing to the Nonexistent Future
DEMAN Weekend Keynote Speaker Robb Chavis, T'98, speaks toward the decisions he made to switch from life as a lawyer to working as a TV writer for the series "black-ish".
The future doesn’t exist.
Don’t worry. I’m not trying to scare you. This isn’t some dystopian rant about how nothing matters. It’s the opposite. When I realized my future was just an idea I manufactured in my head, it helped me take bigger swings in my life. And I’m hoping my story will help you do the same.
Life is a series of moments. For me, I always made choices that kept me pointed in the right direction. After stringing a few of these moments together, things started to feel good, life had velocity. Those moments built on each other. Progress. Momentum. Success. It’s intoxicating. My moments took me to law school. I enjoyed it. I passed the bar. I got sworn in and everything. My parents came. Things were good.
I joined a big law firm and found the work laborious and repetitive and that the road to success and partnership felt subjective. Suddenly I didn’t want the future I had imagined. I was in a place I didn’t recognize. That was scary…
Suddenly I wanted to do something more creative. I decided I wanted to write television.
But all wasn’t lost. Part of the reason I went to law school was because I wanted options in life. I made a quick adjustment. I found a new job that allowed me to use my law degree, but also gave me the opportunity to learn how to run a business without paying for another degree. I built a decade long career and I felt like I was back on track. Maybe this wasn’t exactly the future I wanted, but I found something that still allowed me to use the momentum I had built.
But there was still something missing. As I entered my mid-thirties, I realized I had been heading in the wrong direction the whole time.
Here’s the thing, I still don’t know if something was missing from the beginning. Or if I didn’t feel fulfilled because I had changed and evolved. Looking back, I suspect my dreams had been squashed at some point under societal ideas of responsibility and the pressure to find the kind of job grown-ups are supposed to have. Suddenly I wanted to do something more creative. I decided I wanted to write television.
Here’s the scary part.
To do it, I had to look at all of my moments. All my investment. Everything I had built for fifteen years and throw it all away. We sold our house. I left my corporate job. I was never going to be a lawyer again. I moved to California where I had no immediate family to support me. These were high stakes, and I was scared that if I got this wrong, I would never recover.
I was starting from zero. Erasing all of my moments. Starting from scratch.
But I wasn’t.
Everything I did before still mattered. All those moments still serve me today, but not in a way I could have seen. It taught me how absurd it was to allow the decisions of the 21-year-old version of myself dictate my life for the next 60 years. But so many of us cling to the idea of the nonexistent future that we crafted so meticulously when we were young that we’re scared to let it go. I learned my experiences were not a waste of time. The real waste of time would have been continuing to invest in something that wasn’t real anymore just because I had gotten used to doing it.
I’m telling you to let go of the idea that the moments you have built only have one kind of value. I’m giving you permission to put them down if they are no longer useful to you. I’m not telling you it will be easy. It will be hard. But don’t allow the pressure of the nonexistent future scare you so much that you never allow yourself to find something greater than you could have possibly imagined. Be bold. Be daring. Change. Explore. Live.
The future doesn’t exist, so make it whatever you want.
Chavis ’98 is a former lawyer and a current writer on the television show “black-ish” and is a featured keynote speaker at the 10th annual DEMAN Weekend at Duke on November 1-2, 2019. For more information, please visit DukeDEMAN.com