“You can be anything you want to be,” my parents would say. I wanted to be a doctor and a cowboy and an archaeologist and an astronaut and a wizard. It changed depending on the day of the week. That is amazing they said. Dream big and don’t let anyone hold you back.
My sixth grade teacher ran a contest to encourage us to read. She had a stack of books called The Hardy Boys, and each day I’d sign out a book and read the whole thing that night.
Every morning she would look at me and ask, “You read the whole thing?” I’d smile and grab the next one. By the end of the contest I’d demolished the whole class. I also declared my desire to fight crime and solve mysteries and the teacher said, “That’s good. It’s never too early to figure out who you want to become.”
In the sixth grade I was put into a “gifted program.” We’d go and sit in a giant crater in the back of the library–we called it “The Pit.” The teacher would ask us simple math problems and then more questions about our thought process as we solved them. I found math fascinating. I imagined myself reliving Apollo 13 greatness and saving lives through pocket calculators and dry erase boards. Other kids copied my work and mocked the teachers: “I will never use this when I graduate. This isn’t what I want to be.”
By the end of sixth grade I got to leave for an hour every day, hike up my big boy britches, and walk over to the Junior High School for an advanced placement class. The whole thing was very strange. I spent most of the that hour playing Sim City on an ancient box of a computer. By the end of the year I’d overheard some counselor say the term “City Planner,” and I had to choose something as my future, so that was what I wanted to be.
In Junior High I took a programming class. It was a giant room full of dot matrix printers that chirped and screeched as they pulled up spools of paper to churn out homework assignments. After months of learning we made a program that would make black pixels on the screen shift back and forth like falling snow. When they told me I had to pick again, I choose more computer classes and was going to become a programmer.
In High School we all sat with the counselors and made serious decisions about life and college. We were taunted with the millions of dollars at stake over a college graduate’s lifetime, and they asked dumbfounded kids questions like, “What are you good at?” and “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?”
Quick! Pick something! I imagined giving a wrong answer and being the last one left standing without a chair, or, worse yet, the doors of a thousand possible paths slamming shut in my face simultaneously.
I went to school to be an engineer and graduated as a Communication major. Everyone goes to school for business or communication, they mocked. It’s full of dumb jocks trying to skate through school. The intellectuals went for math and science. Even in college, everyone asked, “What are you going to do with that?” or “What kind of life skills will that teach you?”
What do you want to be? Who will you become? I’d been asked this question so often I was paralyzed. It must be of great importance, this journey. It’s all building toward something. But what?
In college I read something from the great Patrick Rothfuss, who at that time wrote a satirical advice column for the local college paper. Who cares what your job is, he told someone despairing over choosing a major. Don’t look to a job for fulfillment. Live your life, make friends, volunteer. Find fulfillment in life, not in work. Work is an afterthought.
I know so many people who talk of themselves as failures, myself included. Being broke, changing jobs, wondering about those other doors I may have chosen to step through, doors that are filled with riches and sunshine and happiness. The grass is always greener.
“I don’t know what I want to do with my life.”
“I’m forty and I have nothing.”
“I’ll never know who I want to be.”
The answer is simple. We’ve just been taught to ask the wrong questions. It’s not “What do you want to be?” as if life is some mystical prize to be reached.
I don’t want to be anything but me.
There’s those thinking more or less, less is more
But if less is more, how you keepin score?
Means for every point you make your level drops
Kinda like you’re startin’ from the top
And you can’t do that
-Society written by Jerry Hannan
“Like a boomerang what I loved came back to me.” This line is so true to me (from this great video, which I found via A Mind Divided). Poetry doesn’t usually rock my world, but this is epic.