What do I want to be when I grow up?
If you are currently shoveling your way through the muck of high school, or bursting into college to find new discoveries in every shining day, or making your way for the first time in the cutting, formal, salaried world of professional employment, then I daresay it is not too much presumption to say that like me, this question has perhaps crossed your mind once or twice. If you are like me in more specific ways, this question has bothered you ever since it became clear that school would not last forever, and no matter how drawn-out and full of painful self-discovery it was, that it was an incubator you were loath to leave. You asked yourself that question and then shrank from it, burying your unease in your studies and in the endless minutiae of social interaction. Only when you were forced to take notice, by the oncoming wall of college applications or the flat barrier of college graduation or the end of an Americorps term, did you seriously consider the most childishly simple question of them all as the stunningly life-defining choice that it actually was. And if you're like me, you've made it this far without ever quite articulating an answer, be it in your head or by your actions or to your relatives or to the world.
The answer is supposed to be found in the things you love to do, your passion. Now, there's a word that's been turned inside out. Passion is for lovers, for stolen kisses, for spicy-hot endearments whispered in the night, not for the bloodless prose of cover letters and résumés that reduce a person to a set of numbered accomplishments. Passion has no place in the antiseptic land of results and paychecks. Yet they say you're supposed to follow your passion, to take what you love and make it something you can live on. Follow your passions, they say, and do what you love. And my answer has always been the same. 'How can I? I have so many.'
I was always sort of jealous of people who knew, unequivocally, what they wanted. It didn't have to be employable, rational, or remotely accomplishable. I envied those people who had married their talents to their desires in such a way as to lay their chosen path out before their feet. Hell, I knew a guy in high school who wanted to be a professional bowler. Eighteen years old and he wanted to bowl for a living, because that's what he liked and it's what he was good at. I'll not sneer at bowlers, but theirs isn't exactly a life most of us envy. But I envied him, because right or wrong, he was walking a path. He was following a dream, the way you see people do in the movies. I have no idea if he made it or not.
I never had that in high school. I just knew I was going to college, and presumably I'd figure out the rest of my life in the next four years, emerging from my chrysalis with a degree and a plan. Instead I chose English as a major, precisely because I figured it would enable me to hold off on the choice a little longer. Everyone loves a writer, said the liberal-arts angel on my shoulder, and that skill will let me get into any number of potential careers. (If all this sounds head-slappingly naïve, well, I was. I didn't hear the song "What Do You Do (With A B.A. in English)?" until it was far too late to switch.)
All around me, people were getting their shit together, or at least seeming to. My best friends went to law school, one after another. People were picking something they liked, something they enjoyed and wanted to do. My problem is that I could never choose among the many, many subjects I enjoy. In my heart, I've always loved being a dabbler in many things, a master of none. Communication, there's something enjoy. Writing. Writing essays, blog posts, academic papers, haikus, six-word obituaries, fifty-page theses. There are very few things I don't like to write, let's put it that way. But that's not a realistic, steady, salaried life direction. Passion only gets you so far if you also want the stability that a real-person job can bring.
That brings me up to the present day. I'm applying for things all over the country, things I really want to do, jobs I never imagined people having. (My current favorite is that of an anthromorphic cat-person that writes about science for children, even though it really is an unreachable dream job for someone with my just-out-of-college-and-not-really-applicable-anyway qualifications, even though I know I would be happier writing and researching for a living than just about anything else.) I'm looking for a passion, not because I don't have any of my own to go out and live with, but because I need a cause to throw myself behind. I don't much care what it is. I have these general ideas of wanting to make a difference, wanting to help people in some way, somewhere in the world of nonprofits or politics or (heaven forfend) salaried writing, but I don't know how to translate that into real life. And I know that nobody does, which just makes me more and more irritated that I can't figure it out and others are making it work somehow. That's the passion that I have, dissipated and undirected as yet, but indisputably there. Point me at a target and I'll give you all I have. I just need to know where to begin. Or, more accurately and honestly, I want someone to tell me where to begin.
I know what I'm supposed to be doing right now. I'm supposed to be figuring it out. And I'm doing my damndest, trust me. I'm trying to remember that this decision-of where to get my first real-world job, that is-is only one step in a long, long chain, and that the process and product of that long chain of decisions doesn't establish my identity or make me more or less of a person than any other facet of my life. But it's hard to think that way when all you want to do is go and live on your own like people in your age group are supposed to be doing, not staying at your parents' home for the twenty-third summer in a row while you figure your life out. It all starts with the job, for me, and that's what I'm trying to get to-and the job and the passion don't have to necessarily coincide. It's a first step, not a life-defining choice. One big part of this time in my life is remembering that.