It was inside one of the few air-conditioned, trendy cafes in Lisbon that I sat at the precipice of a life milestone that some women dread, while others attack with determination: my 30th birthday.

As a freelance digital marketer, my “office” typically means anywhere with a reliable internet connection, comfortable seating and, hopefully, lots of caffeine. And so, as I sipped a flat white and thumbed through a Portuguese indie magazine — an act of procrastination before opening my laptop to do the type of work that lets me linger in trendy Lisbon cafés in the first place — two questions dominated my thoughts:

How’s my life going?

Where am I going?

I wasn’t sure.

By the age of 30 in American culture, most people agree that stability and responsibility should be prioritized. Some believe that these elements can pave the way for success and happiness. But do they?

Then, my eyes landed on a Portuguese word in the magazine: Desenrascanço.

Loosely translated, desenrascanço means improvisation using current means. A quick Google search frequently associates the word with MacGyverism. Applied, desenrascanço might look like the piece of duct tape you fashioned to the end of a broom to retrieve something out of arm’s reach, or using a few safety pins, a belt, or whatever else one has laying around the house to remedy a wardrobe malfunction.

To me, the word was a revelation. It gave me a name for the unexpected journey my life was taking.

* * *

As a society, independence and ambition rule while exploration and experimentation are best exorcized in your 20s, when “you’re still young.” After that, the traditional template for life goes something like this: Find steady work, find a life partner, and live domestically ever after.

At first, I went along with it. As a fresh undergrad intent on carving my own space in the creative agency world, I worked relentlessly. My energy was acutely focused on a larger paycheck and an impressive title. It was exhausting, but at the time, worth it.

Long, taxing days brightened at lunch with homemade meals prepared by my then-boyfriend. We shared an apartment close to the beach, talked about marriage, negotiated kids. We talked about our future together, until one day we couldn’t see it anymore.

I also began to question my career path. Maybe a different agency job (or two) in a different city would reinvigorate my passion. Before I could make up my mind the universe beat me to a decision: I was let go.

On a whim, I reconnected with former colleagues who had just started their own consultancy. One of them would likely be heading out on maternity leave, so I offered my temporary assistance while I interviewed for another corporate job. Coincidentally, they desperately needed support. This was two years ago, and temporary assistance has evolved into long-term partnership.

* * *

woman texting

Today, work life is both flexible and financially precarious, though I value the mobility. It’s given me the space I need to learn new things in different places and on my own terms. Most recently, I’ve experimented with a month-long program in Barcelona that allowed me to work remotely and explore the city with a group of like-minded individuals. After that, I spent a few months in Portugal where the time difference provided time to enjoy the beach in the morning and work in the afternoons.

I’m not married, though maybe one day. Fortunately, my inner circle of family and friends are supportive, though understandably concerned when client projects dry up or during the occasional exasperated phone calls where I let slip that “I feel so untethered.”

In my profession, my job is to answer the question, “What’s the story?” Answering this question on behalf of clients has been easy; in my own life, it has been a little more challenging.

Desenrascanço succinctly articulated a concept that addressed the questions surrounding my existence. Like a chef creating her own recipe, I make it up as I go along. Even my most expertly planned days are improvised, because changes happen quickly, unexpectedly, inevitably.

As I set the magazine aside and opened my laptop that day in the Lisbon café, I laughed an equally amused and surprised laugh. In the spirit of desenrascanço, I’d been writing my own story all along.

Do you ever worry about the path you’re taking? Tell us @BritandCo!

Ligaya Malones occasionally writes about the intersection of food and travel for her blog, The Curious Passport. She is based in San Diego and can likely be found at an air-conditioned coffee shop or helping her friends plan their next (or first) international adventure. Connect with her on Instagram.