There are people – and I know a lot of them, my wife included – who from a very early age had a career trajectory in mind. Most of them – and again, I am compelled to include my psychologist wife – had professional aspirations that would propel them to a happy and rewarding life. To all those people, who between the ages of 13 and 21, experienced an epiphany of sorts that led them to be a mechanic, accountant, lawyer, doctor, fire chief, pastry chef or psychologist, I say, congratulations. I am not one of you.
For a few years, I flirted with being a teacher, but that window closed when, upon my college graduation, with my teaching certificate in hand, I was offered a job (not teaching) that included a brand-new car every three years. I’d like to say there was some sort of internal struggle, that my quest to do good, to shape young minds into critically thinking citizens with noble intentions, outweighed my desire for some new wheels that cost me absolutely nothing. And when I say nothing, I mean zero. The offer included gas, insurance, and maintenance. They even paid for the car wash. It was a sweet deal, and I’d be a fool to turn it down simply to make the world a better place. I took the offer, vowing that in my next job, whatever it might be, I’d save the world.
I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. In kindergarten, when I was asked that question, I said astronaut. It made sense. John Glenn had just done three laps around the planet and every red-blooded American boy wanted to join him. Seven years later, when asked again, I said rock star. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones had just died, and Mick Jagger, the back-up guy in the band, could barely carry a tune. Finally, on the precipice of college, sitting at the kitchen table, an angry father about to mail his first out-of-state tuition payment, put it bluntly. He said, “You could have stayed in New Jersey. You could have gone to Rutgers. You could have saved me a lot of money.” He licked a stamp and put it on the envelope with the tuition check inside, and said with great concern, “So, what they hell are you going to do with your life?”
Despite the desire to hang on to my youthful and adolescent dreams of astronaut and rock-star, I knew I had better come up with something reasonable for Dad. He was a lawyer, and I wasn’t going down that path. I should have said engineer, despite the fact I failed Algebra and Shop. Quick sidebar for my younger readers if they exist: Shop was the place in school where boys learned how to use tools and build things. Girls were not invited, just as boys were not invited to Home Economics. Had I been invited to Home Economics; all this might have been moot. To this day, I am still drawn to a needle and thread, although clearly lacking the necessary skill set. And, for what it’s worth, while my psychologist wife is an outstanding cook, ask my children whose cooking they prefer, and dad comes out on top. So, finally, under extraordinary and dreadful pressure, I gave in to my father’s question and said, teacher.
It was good that I had an answer, but what a shame it was the wrong one. At the time, starting teachers made roughly $8,000 a year. “Explain how you are going to live on that?” said Dad. Five years later – that’s right, I was on the five-year plan – with college behind me, my new job paid me a whopping $10,000 a year. Did I mention the job came with a car? I was barely 22 and, truth be told, the little light bulb over my head, the one that illuminates when we, as humans, realize that starvation is not an option, was several years away.
Actually, the light bulb never went off. I fell into a job in the not-for-profit world, and then I had kids, and then I realized they shouldn’t starve either. Suddenly, I took my role as caregiver, and hence my career, seriously, never fully knowing if this is what I wanted with my life. There were certainly times when I wished I was in the teachers’ lounge bemoaning another day of parent-teacher conferences.
I got lucky. My plan to never have a plan got me through the last 45 years. Ironically, I’m still not sure what I want to do with my life. I have observed, however, that planning one’s life ahead of time creates undo pressure on the people least able to handle it. Who needs that? In an ideal world, manna would fall from heaven, fill our stomachs, and also pay the rent. No one is more gullible to my own delusions than I. I’m a faithful believer in believing that stuff works out in the long run.
Right now, there are young people I know who are struggling. Life seems a bit overwhelming. To you, and others like you, here is a bit of sage advice. Catch your breath. Take a walk. Watch something stupid on TV that makes you laugh and try not to worry too much. Life has a way of fixing itself with or without a plan. Believing in yourself goes a long way. And who knows, maybe one day you’ll be the first rock star on the moon.