My mother liked to tell stories of her childhood growing up on Staten Island in the forties. One of them was about the time her teacher asked each student what they wanted to be when they grew up. The teacher went up and down the rows, waiting for each girl or boy to answer. At the time the question was directed at my mother’s fourth-grade class, but you could easily ask it of any teenager or young adult today. In fact, with only a slight variation, you could even ask it of middle-aged people and seniors. The variation might be along the lines of did you choose wisely, would you do it again, what can you do now to change, and have you got an indexed 401(k)?
As my mother told it, when the teacher got to her she thought for a moment and then replied that she had no idea. Knowing my mother, I can imagine her adding commentary to the effect of, I’m in the fourth grade for cryin’ out loud, what are you asking me for? We don’t know for sure if she said that, but the teacher’s reaction would seem less cruel if it were true. The teacher replied that if my mother didn’t know then, she’d never know (see Nine Lives).
My mother didn’t have a chance to “be” anything beyond a housewife and mother. She worked before her four children were born and for a time when I was very young. She reentered the workforce when the youngest of us started high school. By then, she had gone back to school to earn her GED and worked for a large supermarket chain in New Jersey. I never asked her about having a career or if she ever regretted not going to college. That is ironic, because with all the students I have advised over the years, I definitely would have steered her toward law school. She was a natural litigator. As it was, she held court in the kitchen rather than the courthouse.
By the seventies when I got to college, the Do-What-You-Love (DWYL) movement had started. It had roots in the counter culture of free love and self-actualization. I can’t blame it for my eventual switch from Chemistry to English for my major, but I didn’t have the motivation or desire to labor at a subject I had little interest in. Since I loved literature and writing, my father urged me to go to law school so I would have something to fall back on if my writing failed. But I held lawyers in contempt and thought law and teaching were beneath me. I had plans to “bury Shakespeare” as I put it to a professor in the English Department. Like others before me, I ended up not burying Shakespeare but praising him.
If I was insufferable (and I was), part of it had to do with immaturity, part with hormones. When you add opportunity, the result can be catastrophic. I found myself post graduation working at a bank in Philadelphia where one fine day I handed an even finer-looking teller a stickup note as a prelude to a date, but she didn’t get the joke and ended up summoning the police. After the bank caper I gave tours at a winery in California and then settled in Silicon Valley while writing reams of poems, stories, diary entries, and a couple of novels. But then DWYL smacked head first into the reality of family, children, mortgages, and commuting on a train much like my lawyer counterparts back in Pennsylvania. But without the gray flannel suit.
Recently, I served as a judge in an ethics-writing contest for my alma mater, and some of the essays dealt with DWYL. They brought up, rightly, this problem of smacking head first into reality. But it’s not just a matter of paying the bills and being responsible. It’s also a question of not being so self absorbed that you can be there for others who depend on you (and you them) as well as for yourself. If you do what you love but place few expectations on it, you will have the freedom to experiment, to fail, to change your mind, and to change it back again. This isn’t about giving up something you love but exposing it to the noon sun where it ought to exist alongside other realities (cf Fumbling the Ball Since 1978).
Perseverance will reveal a lot about the thing you love and your love for it. If it’s real, nothing–not failure or doubt or time–will smother it. You keep doing what you’re doing, having faith in the process, not in the outcome or that illusion called fame. You may end up being what you were meant to be all along. If my mother could have, I think she would have explained it exactly that way to her teacher.
Image credits: feature by DESIGNECOLOGIST; slogan by Millo Lin. Like fiction? Check out the “Mercury trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) and the autobiographical Nine Lives here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”