Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Ms. Mentor offered words of advice to a young master’s degree student in the humanities, who says to her, “They say I’ll never get a job.” And Ms. Mentor, thankfully, agrees. She does her best to dissuade this eager, intelligent young mind who is bent on further knowledge, further praise for his or her pursuit of this chosen field, and offers up the following advice:
So how should you rethink the traditional parade from honor society to Ph.D. to professor? Ms. Mentor suggests you identify your early drive, the thing that you wanted to do—and got praised for—when you were a tyke. Tiger Woods was already swinging a golf club when he was 2. By age 5, Mozart was composing music; Edith Wharton was making up short stories. Jean Piaget published his first scientific paper, on albino sparrows, when he was 11.
Can you make a living doing some version of your youthful drive? That is the stumbly step…
Indeed, I’ve been thinking a lot lately, with the help of my career coach, about this stumbly step, about the things that drove me and what I liked to do when I was a tyke. This idea, that one should look back to what one wanted to do when very little, seems to have a lot of currency. It’s like finding your passion, but even more so, because when you were a kid, presumably the things you wanted to do with your life had little to do with practicality, feasibility, or any other such humdrum matters that might stop up the thinking of us more world-weary grown-ups.
My daughter, who is five years old, developed out of seemingly nowhere a year ago, a couple of convenient answers to the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” One was to be a firefighter, and the other was to be a paleontologist, because she loves the show Dinosaur Train. I have no idea where the firefighter idea came from. The paleontologist at least makes sense, until you show her an actual museum of real fossils, and suddenly, when the dinosaurs before her no longer look like Buddy and Tiny, she’s turning into her father’s or my shoulder and waist, afraid of the real bones before her.
Over the years, I had what seems like a fairly extensive, and not obviously well-connected, list of things I wanted to do, ranging from being an astronaut, a park ranger, a writer, an anthropologist, a movie director, a professional classical musician, and eventually, once I hit college and a couple of things came together for me, struck on the idea of being a college professor. Now that I’m pursuing this alt-ac journey, I don’t think I’m going to go back and try to be an astronaut (my fifth-grade teacher was right about the math) or a park ranger (why do I have to have interests for which its damnably hard to find jobs?)… but hopefully somewhere in this list is a clue to that early drive that kicked me into high gear. What I can see is that some of them have to do with gathering and disseminating knowledge, and some of them have to do with creating something that evokes an experience. The two are related, really, as two sides of the same coin, two ways of accessing the same youthful questions that animated me for years and years. Recently the weight of the emphasis has fallen pretty heavily on knowledge, rather than creation, and what I will do with that little fact remains to be seen.
What about you? Are you following your earliest dreams from when you were a tyke? Does the post-ac life somehow fit better with those early goals and ideals, or do academia and what you’re doing now mesh pretty well with your childhood aspirations?