I was a capricious child when it came to career aspirations. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” well-meaning adults would ask. “A veterinarian”, “a radio host”, or “the president” were my most common answers. And now, approaching the age of thirty, I still can’t decide. I’ve meandered my way through a number of mini-careers including a bike mechanic; a farmer; a coffee roaster; a peon in the airport magazine industry; an unqualified, illegal english teacher. And now when kind, well-meaning teachers, friends, counselors ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I simply shrug. I have no idea.
At least that is what I tell myself. But I’m becoming less convinced that’s actually true. I think I know more than I let myself realize. I’ve been working with an exceptional therapist for several months now and I am beginning to recognize unhelpful holdover patterns from my childhood. I have, somewhat mercifully, dropped from my daily consciousness many of my early traumas. The details of the maddening unpredictability, the constant criticism, the incessant undermining, the beatings, the molestations, and the deafening isolation are all a bit hazy. Although the experiences themselves are now nebulous, the viscous residue of those experiences still coat my thoughts, my interactions, even the biochemical reactions in my brain. They even leave slimy trails on my visions for the future.
As I emerged through childhood and realized I was from a “disadvantaged” background and it was unlikely I’d ever hold a “good job”, I resisted mightily. I propped open my mind and took in all the information I could hold. I would be whatever I wanted to be, damn it. I would take whatever path pleased me, thank-you-very-much. And as I skipped from mini-career to mini-career, from country-to-country, from major-to-major, I refused to specialize, refused to narrow my interests. I would enjoy business accounting if it killed me. I would find joy in my chemistry homework. I’d voluntarily read books on economics. In my limited but influential experiences, those who specialized lost later opportunities. If they were too good at their part-time construction job in high school they didn’t go on to college because they couldn’t go without the money or lose out on the promotional opportunities. Even if they knew those choices would break their bodies by mid-life.
So I passed on multiple promotional opportunities, I refused to move up any chain, I resisted differentiation. I clung to the belief I was holding open the door for real opportunity, when it decided to come a-knocking.
Well, in a way, that strategy worked. I’m approaching the end of my second decade and I’m relatively footloose. I have few responsibilities, I’m not tied to a dead-end career, and I’m free to dedicate myself to school, counseling, fiddle lessons, knitting… I am a full-time student living a life of academic leisure unbound from the need to fully support myself. And here’s the catch. I think real opportunity has finally come calling. I’ve done well in my undergrad program. I seem to have a real shot at graduate school. I have other career opportunities that I could happily pursue. I’m surrounded by a multitude of chances for “good jobs.” I may very well be on the cusp of actually stepping back from the precipice of poverty and cycles of abuse and into the middle class (and not simply by virtue of whom I married).
But here’s the rub. I can’t choose. I can’t decide what graduate program I want to pursue. I can’t even decide if I want to continue with the biological sciences or transition back into the social sciences. I can’t decide if I want aim for a university tenure-track position or chance my luck in the broader market. I can’t decide if I want to pursue food studies or if I want to become a high school science teacher. I feel like throwing up my hands most days, absolutely and throughly overwhelmed. I just don’t know what to do.
However, it occurred to me the other day – I spent my entire life thus far resisting specialization. I fought long and hard to keep myself available for elusive arms of opportunity. I currently have these choices because, thus far, I’ve refused to choose any one thing in particular. To make a choice, to move in a single direction, to specialize, is antithetical to everything I’ve worked to achieve.
But, as my therapist might say, just because it worked then doesn’t mean that it’s working now. I’m learning to let go of behaviors that once served a purpose, but are now only hindering. Resisting choice worked… for a while. But it’s not working anymore.
I am oft reminded these days of the story/parable of the horse is standing equidistant from two equally luscious and tempting bales of hay. Because no one bale has an advantage over the other, the horse starves to death because he cannot choose.
I am that horse. And, believe it or not, standing in the shadows of so many tempting opportunities is comforting in and of itself. Choosing means closing some doors and, as someone who has poured sweat and tears into opening doors, turning away from any opportunity is breathtakingly scary. It feels easier to starve in the shadow of many opportunities than risk failing at any particular one.
But I must remember that although I may not actually starve by refusing to choose, the doors themselves will eventually close, the straw will decompose, and then I’ll be left with nothing. Perhaps it’s better to choose, and risk failure, than to stand in the pasture and watch those hard-won opportunities disintegrate into the soil.
It’s so hard, though, to unlearn years of resistance, to let go of strategies that worked. It’s frightening to trust that, if I at first fail, more chances will come. It’s so scary to choose and I think that’s why I keep saying, “I don’t know.” But I suspect I know more than I let myself believe. I must tune into that small voice, the quiet whisperings that have been drowned out in a relentless need to stay open.