Tuesday, February 06, 2007

If I Spoke at a High School Career Day

(My high school recently sent out an invitation to speak at their Career Day. I'm too far away to do that, but it got me thinking about what I could POSSIBLY say. I think my best shot at this point would be the following...)

Career Days are full of people who can stand in front of you and proclaim what they do or what they are. They'll say things like, "I'm a nurse" or "I've been working in the restaurant industry for 27 years" or "I'm a freelance writer" or "I raise money for the American Dental Association." I finished college. I went to grad school. I'm articulate and bright. And I've failed to do any of the things I was supposed to do: get married, establish a career, have kids, buy a house. I've had too many jobs to count, I've committed to none of them and can identify myself as...nothing. I've managed to do this while successfully keeping a roof over my head, successfully paying taxes on time and successfully not crawling into a bottle of Jack Daniel's or getting hooked on crystal meth. But besides that all I can say is I'm 40 years old and I'm...me.

Not everyone is a success. I remember being a freshman in college and believing my life lay stretched before me like a blank map. I had a boyfriend and a 3.7 grade point average. I didn't worry about exercising or building a resume or 401(k) plans. Marriage and children were far off possibilities. I hadn't made any mistakes yet. I had all the time in the world.

People like to tell high school students cautionary tales of drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, dropping out of school, divorce. They tell you to plan your future carefully: choose a solid career, settle into a safe job, marry a good person and raise a family. They lead you to believe that if you do these things you'll eventually find yourself at the end of a productive life, surrounded by your family. You'll be respected and accomplished. No matter what field you choose, you'll be able to look at your life and know you did well.

I successfully finished college and even earned a masters degree from an Ivy League school. I successfully avoided drugs, alcoholism and crime. But I failed to choose a career and stay committed to it. I've held jobs in corporate America, academia and the restaurant industry. I've performed with a band and recorded a CD of songs that I wrote. I've worked at non-profit organizations and I've taught music and I've worked as a childcare provider. For the past fifteen years I've changed jobs every few years (sometimes every few months) and I've worked in five different industries in mostly entry level positions.

I'm not even sure what I'm doing at this Career Day, standing in front of you and speaking, as if I have anything to say that you might need to hear. Maybe I'm a model for what happens when you don't choose a career. I'm a model for what happens when you don't decide what you want to do with the rest of your life because you don't really have to decide that right now. Or ever. You can exist without ever knowing what your true calling is. I've pretty much said to myself every so often, "So, out of all the things in the world that I could be, what shall I be now?"

I'm not saying this is good. In fact, to many people my would life look like a failure. I have a masters degree in English literature from Cornell University, making me one of the most highly educated waitresses from whom you can order a Chinese dinner. But I also live on my own, free from the demands of a family, free from the bonds of marriage, free to stick my finger in the peanut butter and drink from the orange juice carton and go to bed whenever I feel like it. Whenever I feel unhappy at my job, I change it. Is that failure?

(Then I'd take questions or just say, "Seriously, I'm asking if I'm a failure. What do you think?")

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