As the last round of graduation parties the younger kid is invited to wears down in fizzle and sputter – like a sparkler that’s almost spit out all fire, but still flashes and makes a subdued, menacing bang as you get near to pick up its remains – I find myself returning again and again to the matter of career choice.
It doesn’t help that this being graduation season there are articles everywhere about careers, how to pick careers and how to set the course for “the rest of your life.”
It also doesn’t help that I never picked my career, or rather, that my career choice went spectacularly, imaginatively – not to say astoundingly – awry, or that the main guiding principle leading me to pick what I picked makes me giggle now. Of course, I am, to begin with, odd, and just like they say hard cases make bad law, so do strange people make bad patterns.
Still, I find myself increasingly discomfited with the way we’re advising people to pick careers, and all the more bothered by the fact that I don’t have any advice I can give people. Not that it’s useful in my kids’ case. The older boy wanted to be a doctor by the time he was ten, and, yes, has an almost as strong, backup pick if he doesn’t make it into med school. The younger boy wants to build stuff that will go out to space and will be starting aerospace engineering this fall. In both their cases, there is a clear interest, no secondary “pulling” interest, and the only issue is how to get to doing what they want to do for a living. (Due to our rather stick in mud rules for training doctors – only partially tongue in cheek, though my concerns are not fit for this blog nor short enough to condense into it, and besides, they relate more to the doctors I’ve dealt with in recent years than to Robert’s future – Robert has only one path. Marshall otoh seriously considered not getting a degree and just trying to find work in engineering, then working up from there. Given who he is and what he wants to do, he finally decided on the degree, just before I pulled off all my hair at his blowing several application deadlines.)
However, for kids who need the advice, things must be puzzling. At this point I’ve heard – on their behalf – the following advice: Don’t pick a safe career, because it’s safe; follow your passion; do something that comes easily to you; do something that challenges you for the rest of your life; don’t get a job just to have a job… It goes on and on and on.
So, let’s start with the odd career path. When faced with a choice of careers, I chose what was possibly the safest path in Portugal in the seventies. Though my interest was – had always been – in engineering, I thought I couldn’t do it. Part of this was because I was severely number dyslexic. Given a teacher who understood the occasional transposing had nothing to do with my mental prowess or understanding of the matter, I could get high bs or low as. Given one who went by “the result on the page” I struggled to get c. Complicating things further was the fact that at the time the Portuguese universities only had space for about the top one percent of graduates. Your entrance was determined by the combined results of an exam and your last two years in highschool. If I had bad grades at Math, one of the core courses, I could never enter engineering. So, that wasn’t really an option. (And in an example of things changing, though my problem is still there – perhaps complicated by my being away from math for so long – it was manageable by the time I left highschool and I could do very well indeed in math, provided I made a little extra effort at concentration. Apparently it’s a developmental issue.)
Also, against engineering, was the fact that both my brother and a cousin who had engineering degrees, had been unemployed forever, and were teaching in highschool (in Portugal you don’t need an education degree, though you still have to go through a “transfer” process.)
Well, I liked teaching. In fact, in the “like the work” and “do something that’s easy” teaching was the obvious choice for me. The only other thing I liked as much was writing and – duh – no one would ever pay me for that. In fact, I was fairly sure it should remain in the drawer, where it belonged.
There were courses you could take that would prevent my having to go through the change over process to teaching which my relatives were enduring and so, sensibly, with my eyes open, I picked one of those alternatives. As well, with the difficulty in getting into college in mind (many people had to wait and try the exams again two or three times) I picked something that came easy – English. Of course, English came with a “mandatory” minor in German, which was nearly as much of a bete noir as math. However, the alternatives: a minor in French or even in Portuguese both had the feel of failure and inability to cut it – something I have trouble with because of my inner teen boy – and wasn’t in that privileged path to teaching. Which truly, in the horrible job market of the seventies, in Portugal, looked like my best chance at supporting myself before thirty.
So I went with the safest of the safest possible options, took English and German, and it worked perfectly. I got into college at first try, the grades weren’t too bad (though German drove me nuts and literature was way too easy.) The path to a secure career, hired straight out of college and working a safe job till retiring with great benefits was open before me. Other than mom’s insistence that – since I had great grades in the languages – I should take up the diplomatic option, I was in fact in no trepidation for the future.
The thing about the future, though, is that it’s a total unknown.
In my sketchy imagining fo the future, I had left the option of coming to the states, possibly as a graduate assistant (something I, in fact, had an offer for from an ivy league school back east, when I decided to throw it all over for marriage and domestic bliss.) However I knew in the end I wouldn’t want to leave forever, because it would break my parents’ hearts. As much as I loved the US, I felt I had an obligation to my family. So I figured with longer or shorter sojourns here, I would end up going back to my oh-so-predictable career, teaching languages to high school students.
They say the devil is in the details, but one thing you can say for me. When I’m blown off a planned course, I don’t do it subtly.
Just before I finished my degree, I started talking to Dan, who proposed to me three months later (without us having seen each other in four years, yeah.) We married that summer.
While Dan understood the “security” thing that had led me to pick my career path and offered to move to Portugal, I thought that made no sense. First, he spoke no Portuguese, so finding a job there would be extraordinarily difficult. Second, even after he learned Portuguese, the job market there sucked. And third and more importantly, I wanted to raise my kids in the States if and when we had kids.
So I came to the states, with my degree (almost, but that’s too complex to explain) a box of books and 20 lbs of personal effects. And rendered my safe, secure, career path totally useless. Not only does the US not accept Portuguese teaching degrees, but my secondary translation abilities are even more useless, since my major is in English, which is of course the easy, cop-out degree in the US.
I won’t say my degree has been completely useless. It (or the other language courses I took while taking it) has provided support at times when things got desperate enough for me to go that way. I’ve done technical translation, and I’ve taught at times when we really, really, really needed the money. But it has provided neither security nor a clear career path.
Mostly, though, and due to things like babies and moving, I found myself working at writing. While the payoff hasn’t been what we expected – and that probably because the field was already sick onto the death – it also hasn’t been totally horrible. In fact, within the field, money wise, I’ve done exceptionally well. And though at this point I’m pegged at “underpaid secretary” I’ve also been able to be home to raise the kids something that it’s hard to put a price on. Also with Indie and all, if I can find an extra day a week to do the publishing, there is a good chance I’ll be able to retire comfortably (maybe even very comfortably) on the writing. Since my husband has made enough to support us so far, that’s not a bad option at all.
Yesterday while discussing choices of career, my husband said that I can’t really tell people not to follow their passion, because I have. Which I suppose is true… backwards, sideways and oddly. He also asked me whether or not I like what I do. I told him of course I do. I can pull a book over me like a security blanket. Writing a novel, seeing the character become real, is still my very favorite activity in life. I just hate my career.
Dan says that’s not something to influence the choice. You can’t control the career. BUT you should do something you can’t wait to get up and do every day – and that I do have.
So, what advice do I give kids? What do I tell people wondering what to choose?
Part of me still hankers for security. In fact, part of what has made my career path so difficult, is that I can’t have any.
If I had a kid stuck where I was, I’d say “do get a degree in something you can fall back on.” For one, writing degrees are useless, and if you have another specialty, you can do that on the side while you bring the writing up to speed. Of course, these days with Indie being available, if you’re an aspiring writing, you SHOULD be finishing stories and posting them, as early and as much as you can. Given the long tail, you’re adding to your future income.
The point though is that despite all the “don’t get a job just to get a job” if you don’t have another support system you don’t mind using (I’d have minded sponging off my parents. As was the only way I could justify to myself letting Dan support me, was to work my tail off at things like furniture refinishing, cooking from scratch, etc, and keeping our expenses really low) you still need to pay for the peanut butter and – occasionally – the jam. So you should have a paying specialty that keeps you in food and roof.
The “follow your passion” thing makes me curl my lip – that inner teen boy again – and go “pfui.” BUT there is something in it. Something about doing what you can’t wait to do, anyway. Except I’d modify it “look at what your passion can be used to do.” If I’d grown up in the states I would probably have taken the courses needed to be a tech writer. And I’d have been okay with that. (In the early eighties I was too short on the “tech” courses for companies to hire me for this, though I tried. It’s also entirely possible my accent freaked them out.) Or say your passion is art… art teaching might not be a bad idea. You sort of get to use it, and you have three months in the summer to work on your own stuff. Or say you’re mad about computers. Pure programmer seems to be passing from this Earth as a profession, but how about you take one of the hard sciences and a strong concentration on computers. Look at the end result in terms of “what I’d do” and make sure it’s not something that makes you want to slit your wrists. Yes, some research is encouraged.
However, more importantly and in a way that’s both a curse and a blessing, remember the MOST important thing is that you never know. You never know how you’ll do. You never know what you’ll do. This future you’re charting for yourself can become completely different, if you fall in love with someone from another country; if your country goes to war; if a global crisis hits really hard; if you change enough you discover what you loved now bores you to tears; if technology changes and puts your chosen career out of existence.
Crystal ball is all broken, but given the level of change going on around us (catastrophic change, they call it) AND the careers of my friends and colleagues around my age – most of them taking place in times of slower change, mind – I’d almost guarantee one of these things – at least – will happen to every kid graduating high school this year.
So the best advice I can given them is what’s kept me working in the writing field through some of the most horrible times in the industry: Stay flexible.
To use my own career as an example, while your love might be space opera with a secondary interest in cozy mysteries, be prepared to do anything else, including historical, literary romance. Be willing to work for or without the glory (in my field, be prepared to do write for hire, if needed.) Work hard (who needs weekends, anyway?) Be – sorry, I know it’s a slogan, but it’s true, too – the best you can be. The future is not for slackers. Work – always work – at getting better. Keep your eyes open for opportunity and cast to the future, so when change comes you can grab it and let it carry you to a good or at least safe place.
You can’t predict the future. Picking now for the next eighty years in a world you can’t even imagine, is foolhardy. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow till bring all of us more surprises than sure things, before dusty death which is the only certainty in the end.
To all the grads of 12 and of the next few years:
Pick the best you can, for what will give you a steady perch now. And when the storms of change start shaking those branches, be ready to jump and maybe even grow wings.
May you live long and fly far.