In one of the Tiffany Aching books, Terry Pratchett gives as a formula for success in life “Being yourself as hard as you can” and spending time doing what you’re good at. He said it was very sad that most people never found what they were good at.
This advice sounds deceptively like “follow your bliss.” It’s not. It’s more “find your vocation.” You have a set of unique characteristics that can fit optimally with some profession. If you find it, and use your skills to best effect you’ll be very successful.
Sometimes, some of us – cough, me – feel like everything that’s happened to us and everything we’ve gone through was to prepare us to do whatever our avocation is well. (Well, in my case I’m not finished. I’m sure there’s something I need to experience that will make me a good writer. I wait in eagerness. Or actually not, since these learning experiences are usually unpleasant.)
The thing is not that way of course, but the other way around. Having a set of experiences has prepared you to find something you can do better than other people.
Yes, that sounds like “one is the same as the other” but it’s not. Take Larry Correia, for instance. (Carefully. He’s rather big and you might not be able to lift him.) His knowledge of fights and firearms prepared him to write action better than any other living author.
Now you can choose to believe that being an author was G-d’s plan for him, and G-d guided him through his more fighty experience so Larry could do this well. It’s fine if you believe that. I do. Mostly.
OTOH you know we humans are very good at not being guided into the things we’re “supposed” to do – that’s why we get along with cats.
Hence our path is sort of a drunkard’s walk, composed of (if you believe in it) the intent of a higher power (or the pressures of society. Whatevs. I’m easy.) and our own mistakes, willfulness and “oh shiny” moments.
Which prepares us ideally to snatch at an opportunity to do something the drunkard’s walk has trained us for, when it comes along. Which brings me to…
I’ve been reading Tom Bailey, Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich. It was one of my very favorite books in childhood, and I haven’t read it since becoming a mother. Reading it now is both fascinating and surprising.
First of all, the easy-breezy style holds up well, still, and I rather enjoy it. But second, its being the story of a boy’s childhood just around (I think) the Centennial, it’s eye opening and enlightening.
At one time the grandfather of the protagonist says “what a rascal you are, just as I was at your age, forever tumbling from scrape to scrape.” It’s largely how I was too, as a tomboy, if on a slightly less grand scale, since we didn’t have a coastline near the village, nor cannons to fire. Because that’s some of the stuff they do: go sailing in a storm, fire a cannon, set fire to a coach…
At best, in our day they’d be considered juvenile delinquents. At worst, they’d be medicated/counseled/confined.
Thing is, on a less grand scale, we did much the same sort of thing my friends and I. We got bamboo from the filed next to the school (Stealing) and had mock sword fights that left us covered in bruises. We carried on wars and vendettas around the adult supervision, which would now be described as gang activity. We explored the old Roman mines. And yep, we stole fruit, and caused havoc.
They were more extreme, but those were also more dangerous and frankly boring times (we had books and limited TV) They had to do SOMETHING.
Which brings us to: part of finding something you’re good at, something you can excel at is the “finding.” And the only way I’ve figured so far to know what you’re good at and will enjoy is to do a lot of things and fail at most of them.
For instance, given I like outdoor activity and am by nature restless, I might have thought I was suited for sports, except for the incidental fact of two left feet and the left hands to go with them.
Which brings us to: in older times people could find that they were bad at, and isolate what they’d like to do with their lives/might be good at by trying things at play as kids. By the time we hit our twenties, most of us had a pretty good notion of our limitations, be they “I’m not actually that coordinated” or “I can’t lead people out of a bucket with a really large opening.” Or “I don’t like working in close proximity with others because they’re all poopy heads” or….
Nowadays people don’t.
Most people. I for one gave my kids plenty of unstructured time and plenty of leeway to explored their inclinations and abilities. (This sounds ever so much better than “I was writing so they got away with tons of carp.)
However most of their classmates had lessons and play dates and sports days and museum days and… And never got to try things on their own and fall on their own faces.
As tight on money as we were, one of the things we made a point of was “get them the materials and get out of the way.” What I mean is if they thought they might want to do art, we’d get them materials and lessons, and then let them continue or lose interest. (The exception to this was piano lessons because the older insisted they were too expensive – at the time we were paying two mortgages – so he’s self-taught and will always have certain weaknesses. Weirdly, of course, that’s one thing he’s continuing to pursue.)
Or course, this also applied to astronomy, biology (we found a great deal on a microscope) and chemistry (that one was fun. Why do little boys like explosives? Never mind.)
Anyway, when the first kid entered college and we went to the parents’ orientation, I was shocked to find that they were talking about kids finding themselves. In college. At that price. “You might come in with an undeclared major.”
This falls under my shock at that chick’s article a while back as to why you shouldn’t get married at 22, because “you should be going to Europe, and you should be doing this and that….” Most of the thing she thought you should do were stupid, or at least things you should have got out of your system in your early teens. And the big ones? I’d done them by 22. Which is why I got married then.
What I mean is – and I’m sorry if I’m scattered. We’re trying to change internet service because the current one is the “family togetherness program” mostly characterized by us spending all our time going from room to room going “do YOU have reception?” It’s not going well. Before we can have new system we need to have a guy come out and do a thing. Until then this service is more down than up. And we’re trying to clean/pack/stage house for sale. So I feel like my head is… not fully on – we’re both overprotecting children and (in consequence) delaying (or thwarting in extreme cases) their self-discovery process.
Yes, learning who you are is difficult and often painful, but it is essential before you decide what you want to be. And I mean that in all senses. The decision of whether you want to be married at all or not, for instance, starts with the playing house of childhood. Childhood and adolescence are supposed to be a trying on of hats.
But we don’t want our kids hurt and society has grown less tolerant you boys exploration, which yeah, can be destructive.
So we’re turning out twenty year olds who don’t know who they are and what they want to be.
Some of them find out but by that time they’re in their thirties. Or later.
(Now a caveat here. Odds have always been a bit like this, often characterized by a succession of different professions because we a) are interested in a ton of things and b) get bored easily. So we careen from thing we’re trying to thing we’re trying, and might never find what we’re really good at, unless we make an effort. But that’s almost a stigmata of our people, not something that should possess society at large.)
The problem is that although we’re living longer than our ancestors, we’re not living THAT much longer. Some processes are still inescapable.
By thirty, your visual acuity is going, and some of your other senses are failing. By forty I felt like someone had yanked my batteries out. No longer could I spend all night writing and still function the next day. Fertility goes. And agility and…
Of what use is it for you to decide you want to be a surgeon in your forties, when you’ll never have the coordination for it, and when after extensive preparation, you’ll have maybe five years useful practice?
Of what use is it for you to decide you want a large family at 50 – if you’re female?
Worse, put things off often enough, and you get in the habit of just drifting. More and more I’m running into more and more people who have five degrees but are working at a convenience store late night, because nothing was quite right.
Childhood and adolescence are better suited to this sort of exploration because you heal faster, both mentally and physically. You can try being a thing, and move on.
The more we restrict those early life periods, the more we are stuck with adults who really have no clue where their limits are or even what is feasible as a grown up way of making a living. (Hence people with masters in puppetry shocked – shocked – they can’t make a living.)
There is a French song with the line: “Talent is needed to be old without being an adult.”
If that’s the case, our society is growing more talented.
It’s a waste of both time and – eh – talent and it creates a vast number of malcontents aka “radical losers” who fit nowhere.
I’m afraid we’ll pay dearly for it. Far more dearly than some coaches set on fire, or even the occasional childhood death from a boat trip in a storm.