Two books that inspired me to change my life – Emily’s reflections

Two books that inspired me to change my life - Emily's reflections

Twice in my life I’ve read books that resonated with me so deeply that they changed me forever.

The first time I was about 20, and the book was Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. Joseph Campbell was new to me and I didn’t really know what to expect. Up until then a myth to me was something made up, a kind of lie. Once I started reading The Power of Myth I realised that myth, as Joseph Campbell described it, was just the opposite. I delighted in making connections between the symbols and myths of different cultures and religions.

The whole book was mind-blowing and energising reading. But the moment that stands out clearer than any other, was the moment I first read about Joseph’s philosophy “follow your bliss”. After I read those words I was free and ecstatic. And I dropped out of uni.

Maybe I should have thought about where I was going after uni but I didn’t much care. I just knew that I was doing a degree I didn’t care about at all (Marketing and the Media – I still wonder why I chose that) and that I wanted to live a life where I felt centred and energised, and like I was smiling all the way from my core.

I didn’t want to be like the man that Joseph Campbell overheard in a restaurant:

One fine evening I was in my favorite restaurant there [in Bronxville], and at the next table there was a father, a mother and a scrawny boy about twelve years old. The father said to the boy “Drink your tomato juice.”
And the boy said, “I don’t want to.”
Then the father, with a louder voice, said, “Drink your tomato juice.”
And the mother said, “Don’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do.”
The father looked at her and said, “He can’t go through life doing what he wants to do. If he does only what he wants to do, he’ll be dead. Look at me. I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life.”
Well, that’s the man who never followed his bliss. You may have success in life, but then just think of it – what kind of life was it? What good was it? You’ve never done a thing you wanted to in all your life.
…I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don’t let anyone throw you off.

So I trained as a chef and worked as a cook for a while. I loved cooking and didn’t mind the job, but I smelled like raw chicken and grease and it disturbed me. I began to want a job where I could be outside and enjoy clean fresh air.

I started reading David Attenborough’s books on the train to and from work and was captivated by the wonders of the natural world that he described. It was David’s autobiography Life on Air that was a life changer for me though. On page 254 David describes the moment he knew the life he had chosen was right for him. He was at the summit of Mt Kinabalu before dawn, having set out from a hut at 3am. As I read the following passage it made me want for a similar experience.

I sat down, ate a bar of chocolate and drank deeply from the clear pool of rainwater that had formed in a dimple in the granite. Far away, across the dark carpet of rain forest flecked with tatters of mist, I could see the distant lights of Kota Kinabalu, outlining the coast. Clouds began to race up the vast rock flanks of the mountain. The glancing rays of the rising sun struck the tips of the pinnacles and moved slowly downwards until they streaked across the wet flanks of the plateau making them glisten like mercury.

If I ever had any doubts about abandoning a career that would keep me sitting behind a desk in London, I lost them there.

And, through David Attenborough, I lost my doubts about abandoning the grease and chicken smell of the commercial kitchen. I quit and moved on to study horticulture and then environmental restoration. I didn’t yet know how to create a career where I would find myself on a mountain at dawn, but I could create one where I could be outside, observing plants and helping them grow.

And years later, guiding walking tours in areas of extraordinary natural beauty, I have those moments of clarity all of the time; and I smile from my core so much it’s a wonder I don’t have a six-pack. I thank Joseph Campbell and David Attenborough for showing me that bliss is worth following and that my bliss is in nature.

Now… how to convince our guests to get up at 3am and climb a mountain…

How about you? Have you ever read anything that changed your life or gave you strength to change something in it? What do you think of Joseph Campbell’s philosophy of following your bliss? And importantly, will you wake up at 3am with me if I find us a mountain to climb? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear from you.

See you in the comments,

Emily Pinkus

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