When I was younger, I believed that following a rigid, linear path in life was a sign of strength and self-control. At 21, I truly believed the road to happiness simply depended on flawlessly executing my 10-year plan. What could go wrong if I just stayed focused and checked off each box? As it turns out, plenty.
Today we are facing unrest and outrage following the death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and too many more, a global pandemic that is taking people’s lives and devastating our communities, especially our communities of color. We’re all seeing that sticking to even the best laid plans is completely impossible. Each of us had an idea of what we might have been doing right now, and I’m certain we did not expect governors across the country declaring states of emergency amid protests or worrying about our health, our families and our jobs.
But I’ve learned that when our plans crumble, we have to be prepared to swerve and embrace the unexpected, knowing that in life a zig-zag is often more likely than a straight line.
While we mourn the loss of our brothers and sisters and feel the mounting frustrations of patterns of police brutality in our country, we also continue to cope with these uncertain and unprecedented times. I’m encouraging us to embrace a few of the strategies I have learned.
Listen to your inner voice and take action
For six years after law school, I worked for a big corporate law firms and was completely miserable. When I was 31, a friend encouraged me to abandon my perfect plan and I started listening to the quiet voice inside of me. I took a leap of faith and left the private practice of law and entered public service in the administration of Chicago’s mayor, Harold Washington. There I discovered what it felt like to be a part of something bigger than myself, and I have never looked back.
I worried because public service was not part of my 10-year plan and many close to me thought I had the perfect life. My life’s trajectory changed dramatically, and I have never looked back.
If you’re feeling stuck, confused or even inspired right now, trust your gut. Look into exploring your passions or taking a chance on a new career path or volunteering your time to make an impact. For help with this, the Obama Foundation created a site with resources on police violence, actions you can take to encourage reform, and organizations you can support.
And take the time, while you may have it, to get involved with organizations that are fighting for justice and accountability or helping our families in need like the health care workers or essential workers and protecting communities of color.
Stay engaged – that means exercising our right to vote
After the very low voter turnout in 2016, former First Lady Michelle Obama launched When We All Vote. When We All Vote is a nonpartisan organization designed to change the culture around voting, decrease the race and age gap of those who show up at the ballot box, and increase voter participation in every election. The goal is to meet people where they are by bringing people, brands and organizations together to help influence civic engagement at its most basic level-voting.
During a press conference in Atlanta, rapper Michael Render, known professionally as "Killer Mike" gave an impassioned speech calling for protesters to take the fight to the ballot box. In a video that went viral, Render, the son of an Atlanta police officer expressed his anger and urged people to “exercise your political bully power” by participating in elections and voting out politicians that do not represent your values.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to refine our original plans to encourage voter turnout in light of our new realities and to focus on ways to make elections safer and more accessible by expanding vote-by-mail, early voting and online voter registration. Elections at every level of government matter and they have serious consequences. Signing up to volunteer and organize your community, friends, families and co-workers to ensure that they are registered and ready to vote is all of our responsibility. Consider being a part of these efforts, vote and encourage your friends and families to do the same.
Stay focused on what matters
The key to successfully navigating any challenge is to stay committed to your true north— which I have learned is not perfection, or a rigid plan, but simply the greater good— and never turn from those coordinates. Recovery from this global pandemic lies ahead, but only if we follow the advice of scientific experts who guide us in best practices. Healing from the devastation and hurt we feel as a result of the events in Minneapolis and across the country is possible with strong leadership.
Today, President Obama noted the importance of following our true north in a Medium post. He wrote, “If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals.”
This will not be the last time our plans crumble and we are required to make sacrifices. We have to embrace these moments because they define our character and at this time, lives are on the line.
My grandmother Pudden used to tell me, “Put yourself in the path of lightning.” I’ve never felt that static charge more present than I do right now. Pudden would say it often — encouraging me to do what was right instead of what was easy.
Valerie Jarrett is the author of "Finding My Voice: When the Perfect Plan Crumbles, the Adventure Begins." She was the longest serving senior adviser to President Barack Obama and oversaw the White House Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs. She chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls. She is currently a senior distinguished fellow at the University of Chicago Law School, and a senior adviser to the Obama Foundation and ATTN: She is Board Chair of When We All Vote, co-chair of the United State of Women.