I’ve been thinking lately, which frankly, tends to get me in trouble. From more than one area of my life, I keep hearing from and about people who are having to push against family or societal pressure to succeed or define their life success in the very narrow way of school, career, marriage, house, kids. There may be stuff to achieve after this, I’m not sure. Or maybe once you get all that stuff, society leaves you alone to your mid-life crisis. The whole thing leaves me scratching my head. Although does it? That’s where the thinking comes in.
If you are an English major or other humanities major or an artist/creative of any kind, your career path will most likely be rather interesting, not terribly lucrative, and it will follow the beat of its own drummer. Mine certainly has, and it’s only been in the last 5 years that I have landed in a comfortable spot, where I actually get paid decent money to write things that matter most of the time and have a personal life too. I fell into the trap of sitting back and thinking, how do all these people get caught up in that narrow definition of success?
And then the bad movie special effects kick in, the calendar pages flip back, and the ominous narrator intones, “It was the 1980s — the height of the Ronald Reagan years and Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street declared that ‘greed is good’ … ”
My honor student status in high school made it seem like I was just as good at math and science as I was at English. But that says more about the quality of the school than my academic achievement. I do remember an emphasis on the practical, which translated to studying science in college. And that’s when I was exposed as a science and math fraud. My ass got consistently and sequentially kicked in Bio 101, 102, Chem 101, 102, and Calc 101, 102. This honor student was suddenly looking at C’s and Ds and a GPA that hovered around 2.5.
Sure, I got an A in my writing class, but that had been fun and easy. Somewhere along the way, I had picked up the idea that fun and easy was wrong. I thought life should involve suffering and be a hardscrabble scramble in order to “count.” This may be a stab in the dark, but I wonder if being raised Catholic and seeing Jesus hanging on the cross every week, which I was made to understand I was responsible for, had anything thing to do with that?
The idea that something being easy is not always the right way to go only makes sense if you’re trying to train for a marathon by running one fast mile and stopping. That’s too easy, and you ain’t gonna cross that finish line before dark.
So there I was at the end of freshman year, with a GPA on life support, but still invested in the idea of life being practical and hard. So I did what any dumb, sensible person would do and took up accounting. This turned out to be just as bad as the science classes and I was suffering, so I knew I must be on the right track. I did enjoy the guy I sat next to who loved accounting and was making methodical plans to work for what was then the Big 8 — although I think they are down to 4 now. I could have listened to his confident plans all day long, but I should have been paying more attention to the connection of his accounting joy and his success in the subject. Instead, I wrote poetry in class while the professor droned on about first in, last out, or last in, last out. I got another D.
As a super ironic aside, a number of years later I was the sole administrative person for a tiny nonprofit and got put in charge of the books with monthly help from an accountant. It took me a year of her visits to truly understand what happened to the numbers when I put them in the accounting software columns and they popped out on the balance sheet. I always came out of those day-long sessions with a huge headache. Once when I was really discouraged, she told me I understood the process better than most of the college accounting graduates they hired. That is a rather frightening thought, but I’m guessing these were not my joyful Big 8 guy, but people who were trying to be practical and pursue the narrow definition of success. I wish them the best and no headaches.
At the end of sophomore year, with my GPA still in the toilet, I had no practical place left to go. I threw up my hands and gave in and became an English major. I suppose if I had gone to a small school with advisors who gave a flip, I would have clued in sooner, but what fun would that be? There’s something to be said for failing rather spectacularly to teach you something. And once I switched, for the first time school wasn’t a grim struggle, it was actually pleasant and even fun sometimes. Who knew?
And then I also learned the more valuable lesson not to care what people thought, because I knew I had tried and was confident that this was the only thing I was good at. Oh to be sure, I endured a fair amount of sneering. “English major! What are you going to do with that? Teach?” Which is actually also snubbing teachers, BTW. Journalism was also not my thing, so I concentrated on my own writing and fell into nonprofit administration as a source of income. Then I had to endure the “Oh, you’re a writer? What have you published?”
Did I always feel confident? Of course not, when you get that 5th, 10th, or 80th publication rejection, you kind of think, what the hell am I doing? But now I’m starting to understand that I had a couple of key advantages, which seemed like disadvantages at the time. One, early on in life, I learned I did not have strong enough skills in any area that would have put me on the society-endorsed path. Also I’m allergic to gray corporate cubes. So I had no other option than to figure out how to succeed with the writing skills I had. Two, I come from a working class background, which I tried to run from in college and after. It came with high expectations in the moment — do your chores, do well in school (or don’t bother me with teacher notes that you’re screwing up). And it also came with low expectations for a future life. And that turned out to be an extraordinary gift, that I am only now fully appreciating.
Benign neglect combined with being kid number 4 (which one are you?) allowed me to find my own path and define success in my own way. I do recall my father pressing some rather random career choices on my siblings, so here is a formal thank you to them for wearing him out first. By the time he got to me, benign neglect has set in.
Life isn’t easy, no matter what path you choose — even those who pick the society- and family-sanctioned path will struggle at some point, so you might as well put your effort towards the skills that are fun, easy, and worth your while.
To paraphrase a Catholic call at the end of the Mass, go in peace to love and serve the skills you have. It’s much better than a headache.
Photo credit: Still from the Talk Talk video, “It’s My Life.”