Tuesday, 29 October 2013

What to be when you grow up?

Some mid-thirty-something people dear to my heart have been struggling with that question lately. This post is for them.

I am no role model when it comes to making a career. On the contrary, I am more a warning example. On the other hand, I am one of the most contented people I know, which might give me some right to spout off in a more or less advisory tone.

I have no practical advice for anyone who has to make his/her way in this time. I feel lucky to be old enough to get a pension. But for whatever it is worth, here are my two cents on the topic of life and work.

In my 70 years on the planet (heehee, I love saying that) I never figured out what to be when I grew up. I have been educated, and I have earned a (frugal) living, but there was a total disconnect between the two. It has been a good life anyway.

Here is the funny thing: when a geology job for the husband took us to the Kootenays I got dragged here kicking and screaming. What was I going to do in the boondocks? Moving to deep country is honestly the best thing that has ever happened to me. I would never have chosen it, at least not at age 26. If we had gone later we would not have been able to buy land.

Moral of the story: the notion of deliberate life planning is overrated. As John Lennon so brilliantly put it: "Life is what happens while you are making other plans." Granted, zooming in on a goal like a straight arrow works for some people. 

But for many of us it does not. The reasons can be personal or linked to forces beyond our control, or a combination. 

The cliche from the time when people could afford midlife crises was this. They had climbed the career ladder only to find it was leaning against the wrong building. After which discovery they ran off to Big Sur to frolic in hot pools with other free spirits, cheered on by the gurus of the day, and never mind the mortgage or the kids. Blogs on the topic of duty are brewing.

To stretch the metaphor: These days it is just as likely that one is halfway up the ladder when the building collapses, or the entire ladder is yanked away. After which the survivors are being told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Yeah, right.

This is a time of potential collapse and certain transition. Yesterday's certainties are gone. It is not easy to figure out for which part of your fate you are personally responsible, and what is just the luck of the collective draw. 

Work is important, of course. Apart from the need to survive, humans don't do well with idleness. But as a core around which to organize a life, paid work is only one factor. Family or other relationships, an artistic talent, a place, social activism, all these can be the centre around which the rest falls into place, with work just being the thing that makes the rest possible. 

If your problem is of the ladder against the wrong building kind, think of life as a novel. Most writers will talk about books that took years of effort and never saw the light of day. Nevertheless, the process of writing them was essential to the birth of the book that made it. Past investment in training is never entirely wasted. You know what you know. 

Your past has made you into who you are now. Regret nothing and move on.

Again, I have no advice on how to cope in today's economic waste land. But I do know this: answers to the question: "And what do you do?" should not be limited to one's profession. 

If you can get paid for doing what you love, great. If you have to separate the two, so what. This economic system is not sane. It is stark raving bonkers and able to kill our Earth. Your ability or lack thereof to function in it should not determine your sense of who you are.

You have passions and talents that can make a contribution to the world. In between looking for paid work, get out there and use them. Stay open. Work with others. Good luck and godspeed.


  1. Being the outdoorsy type I still managed to stumble into teaching first high school, later middle school and coaching. I love it from the beginning to retirement. My spouse and I met that way. As to the outdoor life, June, July, and August gave me all I needed. Many of my friends worked 2nd summer jobs but I wouldn't trade camping all over North America for a fancier house or car....:)


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