the piece of career advice I’ll never give my children, or anyone else

I’m a particularly sensitive person, and for many years I had a tendency to internalize advice I received, taking it quite literally. In addition to being innately sensitive, for a long time I didn’t have a strong enough sense of self to question the advice I received – I truly believed if people older than I was were sharing their proverbial pearls of wisdom, then these pearls equaled the truth. One of the bitchin’ things about growing older is developing a stronger sense of self and now I hear certain pieces of advice and roll my eyes, or scoff, or point out to my children all the ways the advice is wrong.

As it happened, I received the same piece of advice for the three areas of interest I was most passionate about growing up (writing, acting, studying English Literature). If I wanted to be a writer, or an actor, or get a Ph.D. in British Literature, I heard time and time again that I shouldn’t be able to imagine doing anything else with my life, at all. All three endeavors, I was told, were inherently selfish acts, not conducive to earning a living, let alone raising a family.

I was reminded of this bit of advice recently when I was listening to the Diane Rhem show on NPR on my way to the gym. She had a British actor on her program whose name I didn’t catch, and he was sharing this particular bit of wisdom with the mother of a daughter in a theater conservatory. Something along the lines of “just make sure it’s the only thing – truly the only thing – she wants to do – because she will sacrifice everything else for it.”

I just rolled my eyes. I mean, nobody saw me because I was alone in the car but if someone HAD been there? It was a pretty impressive eyeroll.

Because, yes. Acting and writing and dancing and playing musical instruments and studying English or history or the history of stage direction? Not terribly profitable careers, of course. We live in a pro-STEM world and the value we place on the arts seems to be dropping disturbingly quickly. Chances of succeeding as an actual working actor, or supporting yourself by your published novels alone, or even landing a tenure-track teaching position, are slim. But ultimately I’m just not sure how helpful this particular bit of advice is. For someone like me, who grew up in a house where the grown ups were constantly worried about money, the need to earn a living trumped my less practical dreams. I felt tremendous pressure, not so much from my parents but from society, generally, to succeed in areas I didn’t naturally excel in (calculus and chemistry leap to mind), that my failure in those areas constantly seemed to overshadow the fact that teachers thought I was a good writer and members of the community found me a talented actress.

I think the word “imagine” was the word that tripped me up time and time again. Not able to imagine myself doing anything else? Are you kidding me? I could imagine myself doing EVERYTHING else – law school with a dramatic career on capitol hill! Practicing pediatric oncology! Environmental studies and saving forests and rivers! Yes, I could imagine myself in all sorts of careers.

Admittedly I haven’t seen things play out well – financially speaking- for the writers, actors and Ph.Ds I know. They struggle mightily, some finally accepting the need for a day job, others allowing spouses to carry the weight of financial matters for the family. Many have limited the number of children they have not because they want to but because their financial situation has forced them to – others continue to work in hospitality industry to support their art. Still, there is a part of me that admires their commitment to their craft – not to what I consider a lack of imagination so much as fierceness, creative dedication and core beliefs held dear.

In writing this I can see how maybe I come across as unsatisfied or disillusioned with my own life – that couldn’t be further from the truth. I have a beautiful, messy, creative life with a job that could support my kids and me if anything ever happened to Sam – all of those things hold importance for me.

As Evangeline, Duncan and their friends grow up, at least some of them are bound to be less STEM-oriented and more involved in the arts. I know I won’t be the grown up to say “you should only pursue X dream if you can’t imagine doing anything else” but I hope I have the wherewithal and judgment to say “that sounds amazing! What do you need to do to achieve that?” or “becoming a prima ballerina sounds like an amazing goal – I once worked for a doctor who did so until she was 32 and then went to med school – she works at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill today!” Or “acting and writing can be tough but if you combine them you’ll have astounding success.” Or “I’m in complete agreement – very little is as fascinating at Restoration literature. And the study of history is a great way to learn to think critically, which is useful in all sorts of fields.”

I will not, as God and this blog as my witness, ever tell someone they’d better not be able to imagine themselves doing anything else. Because life is short, but it is wide, with room for so many reinventions.

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6 thoughts on “the piece of career advice I’ll never give my children, or anyone else

  1. Can you hear me sighing? Listen a little harder. It was the 1960s, and college for women meant a career in teaching, or perhaps nursing or “business administration.” Eventually, I landed in social work, but it took ten years to get there. A three year Bachelor’s? Mine took nine. Of course, I spent some of that time working in Kansas City, etc.

    I was my class poet — not a big deal, really, since no one else wanted to write poetry. But I wanted to be an English major, and the advice the big people gave was, “Sweetheart, you’d never be able to make a living doing that.” Hence, the dissatisfaction, wandering and eventual degree in medical social work.

    So. Good for you. I’m an eye-roller from time to time now, too. Everything might have been very different if I’d had the gumption to stand up for what I wanted, but I didn’t. On the other hand, better late than never. I may never publish a book, but I’m enjoying the writing I do — and it combines beautifully with running a business and having a life.

  2. Bravo! I’m all for being realistic, but shutting down someone’s aspirations because you think it will be too hard is just plain mean. Kudos to you. You kids are very lucky 🙂

  3. Spot on. My dream killer was a boss, well over 20 years ago. I took 15 years to work his cr*p advice out of my system, and have since written a book that has been published on two continents.

  4. I can still imagine myself doing all kinds of things, most recently (as absurd as it might sound), I was thinking what fun it might be to travel around and demonstrate Vitamixes, like the young woman I recently met in Costco (only because I love, love, love my Vitamix. I wouldn’t be able to do it with, say, the horrible Hoover vacuum cleaner I own because Consumer Reports led me to believe it was the best).

    I find it sad that our country has become one in which the questions, instead of, “What are your passions? What are your talents? What do you love studying?” has become one of, “What are you going to study so you can get x, y, or z job?” I wish we’d go back to the days of getting an education for an education’s sake and apprenticing in order to establish careers. So glad there are still mothers out there willing to encourage their children just to follow their dreams and desires. The rest will fall into place, I’m sure. Good for you!

  5. Shoreacres – it takes a lot of time to develop gumption, I feel, and it’s innately unfair – I could have used a lot more of it when I was 18 or even 22. Now I have gobs of it – extra, almost! And your writing is gorgeous – your blog could be the start of a book of essays if you wanted it to be.

    Stefanie – what kind words. Of course, it’s so much easier right now – yesterday E told me she wants to be a mommy. Today she thinks she wants to be a baker. It’s going to be so much harder in 12 years or so!

    Charlotte – it’s disturbing how long things our bosses (and other people in power positions) can stay with us. I know exactly what you mean by it taking 15 years to get that shit out of the system!!

    Mali – thanks so much – it keeps me grounded on a regular basis, definitely.

    Emily, I really do think part of the problem is just how enormously expensive college has become. When I went to school it wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t a luxury like it practically is now. Today E told me she wants to be a baker and my mind immediately went to “hurrah! apprenticeship” which is, you know, totally nuts. Cause she’s four, and her passion is chocolate.

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