Wednesday, August 12th, 2015
Once again I’m grappling with the problem of how you decide what to do with your life, how you go about discovering what it is that you would like to do when you grow up. It’s a problem that was my problem some fifty years ago and one that Paul Goodman wrote about in his seminal book, “Growing up Absurd.” And it’s a problem that that still confronts young people today as I discovered during a conversation with one of my grandchildren recently. Goodman’s main point was that when it comes time to make some sort of judgment about what do with our lives we often don’t have enough information about what a particular line of work entails to make a definitive decision.
Of course for many people choice doesn’t come into it—it’s a question of what job, if any, happens to be available at the time that they need to earn a living. For them, there is no luxury of choice. I thought of mentioning this to my grandson, telling him that he was one of the lucky ones, one of the people who had a chance to think about what he wanted to do with his life—but to what purpose? He’d have understood it, would have known it to be true but it still wouldn’t have made him feel any better. And sharing my own experience wouldn’t have helped much either. But our conversation provided the impetus for my thinking about the hit and miss aspects of deciding what to do with one’s life. Sometimes people strike it rich from the beginning—start doing something that they love to do and keep on enjoying it throughout their working lives. And then there are others like my ophthalmologist friend who got it completely wrong.
He discovered that ophthalmology was not for him only after he had devoted 12 years of his life to his studies and by that time he had a wife and children to support. He had to tough it out. He couldn’t make his life’s work better but he, unlike most people, was fortunate to be earning enough money to take sabbaticals and use those leaves of absence to engage in a variety of pleasurable enterprises.
In my own case, even though I wanted to write, I went to university because my parents insisted on it—“You can’t earn a living as a writer,” they told me, and likely they were right. It was at university that I became as psychologist and a teacher—my life’s trade, I guess you could call it—and it was at university that I learned about injustice in the world and the importance of political activism, a lesson that stays with me still. But I don’t “do” psychology anymore. Not that the field doesn’t interest me, it’s just that the nature of the teaching job changed. Small classes which permitted exchanges—questions and answers and discussions—with and between students were phased out as the university moved its courses into big lecture halls that demanded orations and stymied meaningful interactions. Lucky for me I had my writing to fall back on.
There were others I knew who had changes of heart. My dentist, when I was a little boy, was a very sweet man and an artist—his framed water colors hung on all of the walls of his second floor, Bronx apartment where he had his office. He hated hurting people (dentists rarely used anesthetics in those days) and my fantasy is that when he went into dentistry it was because he wanted to help people and that he hadn’t reckoned on the pain he was bound to inflict in the process. In any case, when he could stand it no longer, he hung up his drill and took up painting fulltime.
And a onetime colleague of mine had three kicks at the can before he got it right. He started out studying chemistry because his family—many of them chemists—wanted him to. (Does this sound familiar?) But after getting his master’s degree he decided he’d rather be a psychiatrist. And years later, in the midst of a thriving psychiatric practice, he switched gears and became an art historian. I think he’s finally happy with what he does.
So as you can see, there are no guarantees when it comes to deciding on your life’s work. The nature of a job may change or, once engaged in it, you may discover that it’s not really to your liking or you may come to the realization that there is something else you’d rather be doing. And the truth is discovering what it is you want to do is probably more difficult now than it was in my day. That’s because more jobs than ever require specialized training which by definition means longer periods of study before you actually understand what those jobs entail.
So what does it all mean? That’s hard to say but what it doesn’t mean is that you should throw up your hands in despair even before you get started down the road. Instead take a path that appears promising and as you go along make sure to enjoy its sights and sounds as well as the companionship of others sharing that path with you. You may find it to your liking and decide to continue straight on to your destination or you may find enticing detours along the way that you’d like to explore. And yes, as we have seen, you might discover that what you thought was your final destination is not really to your taste. Then comes the hard part, the time to look back and take a chance on one of the roads not taken.