So a couple of weeks ago I ranted against the concept of “careers” in a world/economy where artists are rarely rewarded for talent (at least not as much as their social connections) and strongly-skilled people in general often have to settle for simple, unglamorous jobs. I was pretty angry at the time. In short, I have been on the verge of giving up on my artistic endeavors altogether over the last couple of months. So I’m a little touchy about these topics.
But after a couple weeks of holidays, severe writer’s block, copious amounts of snow, and more time to sit and reflect than I knew what to do with, my feelings have calmed slightly (or at least been numbed by cold weather). And though I don’t take back anything I said in the previous post, I’d like to readdress those same thoughts in a slightly more positive and hopeful manner.
My ruminations all trace back to that moment when we are young and someone asks us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We’re generally inclined to give them some sort of answer. And for better or worse, that answer continues to linger in our heads as we mature into adults, and we feel like we should stick with it. “I am a doctor.” “I am a violinist.” “I am a writer!” But when something goes wrong, or we start to wonder if we might prefer to do something else, we start to feel confused and probably a bit guilty that we are not pursuing “that-thing-I-said-I-would-be.”
This has been an issue that confused me ever since I was a little girl. Well, I would usually have an answer for people. The problem was that it changed all the time. “I want to be an Olympic gymnast.” “I want to be an Academy-Award-winning-director.” “I want to be a video game composer like Nobuo Uematsu.” “I want to be a veterinarian.” “I want to be a best-selling novelist.” I wanted to be a lot of things. And in every single category, I wanted to be the best. My dreams were often quite specific.
By the time high school came to a close, I had to choose among my dreams. So I chose screenwriting. I wanted to write amazing stories and watch those stories come to life on a big screen. And though I don’t regret any of my time going to film school–which was a blast, and I learned a great deal–that decision has haunted me ever since, especially after I decided to move out of LA. Not because it was the wrong decision, necessarily. But because there wasn’t a right one.
The decision to become a film-maker haunted me because, until recently, I believed it defined me. I believed that if I did anything other than “making it big in Hollywood,” I was giving up on my dream. I was disappointing all those people who stared into the big blue eyes of my child-self and asked, “What will you be when you grow up?” Now I’m beginning to understand that the source of my dilemma was not the answer that I chose. It was the question itself. Can we only be one thing when we grow up? And if we change our minds, does that make us quitters?
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that some professions require strict discipline and long-term training–my first example of a doctor being one of those. Some people might also stop my line of reasoning with an argument like this one: “If you truly wish to master something, then you should dedicate a large portion of your life to learning and honing the skills of that craft.” I get it. There’s some truth to that notion. But let me challenge it with a different idea.
I had an incredible teacher in high school–we called him “Doc” Thompson–and he is the sort of teacher Hollywood loves to make movies about. He inspired and challenged every student who crossed his path. He constantly fought the system and tried to reform education. He made high-schoolers read Plato and Socrates and he tried to engrave ancient wisdom upon our modern hearts and minds. But what I remember most clearly from his classes is not a quote from a Greek philosopher; it’s something he said one day in class. “Knowledge is a lot like Velcro. The more pieces of it you pick up, the better you start to understand how it all fits together.”
That’s a rough quotation. But hopefully you grasp its meaning. It illustrates a concept that I’ve only begun to appreciate in full after several bouts of “career confusion.” Sure, if we focus on just one profession and refuse to distract ourselves with other interests, then maybe we’ll become the “master” of that field. But what if we allow ourselves to constantly explore–to pick up new skills even if they seem entirely unrelated, to work odd jobs even if we’re over-qualified, to appreciate every piece of knowledge and craftsmanship that life throws at us–because maybe it’s all connected? Maybe once we pick up enough of it, we’ll have something sturdier and more useful than one side of Velcro? Maybe we’ll have a better understanding of the whole world, and our own roles within it?
I’d like to believe that life is about learning and exploring–that it’s okay to change our minds every once in awhile, or maybe even walk along in one big circle until we end up where we started. At least we’ll probably have an interesting adventure in the meantime.