You can do anything... but not everything
The catch that millenials missed
It’s hard to stay balanced with a foot in more than one door at once, yet we’ve been sold the belief that the world contains limitless possibilities for each and every one of us. A less anxiety-inducing way to think about it is that the world contains enough possibilities for each of us to find at least one path that’s satisfying on its own.
In Avengers: Endgame, Frigga, Thor’s mom tells him, “Everyone fails at who they're supposed to be. The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are." Subtle, but there’s a difference.
Then in her memoir Rust, Eliese Colette Goldbach recounts that high school she excelled at math and struggled in English. Out of some misplaced American masochism, she decided to be an English major in college. She believed that doing what came easily was a form of laziness, while learning to excel at what you were bad at showed good work ethic. That seemed like a painful way for her to live. Still, she wrote a solid memoir. Exceptions make the rule.
James Clear uses an example of athletes in his book Atomic Habits, comparing gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps to gold metal runner El Guerrouj. Even though Phelps is 6’4” and Geurrouj is 5’9” they wear the same inseam pants. Phelps is all arms, which is best for swimming, and Gerrouj is all legs, which is best for running. They wouldn’t do well if they traded sports, even with all the work ethic in the world.
Elon Musk said it bluntest, and maybe best, when a college student requested some advice for young entrepreneurs. “If you need inspiring words, don’t do it.” Although harsh at first glance, this is more honest than the classic saying, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” It will still feel like work sometimes, but internal motivation should be enough to get through it. If your mind and body are somewhat cut-out for it too.
I thought I wanted to be an engineer, to build impressive bridges or jets for everyone to marvel at, and to make a lot of money and buy my mom her first diamond. I could do math and science. That’s what my high school transcript told me, and that's what I continued to tell myself. But I didn’t often enjoy the process of it, only the idea of it and the impressive results.
In English though, I enjoyed the discussions that maddened my classmates. The required reading and even the essays for homework felt like dessert, so I often saved them for last, when I was too exhausted to do anything else.
So what did I choose for my college major? Science. And I paid my own tuition by working as a deckhand on commercial fishing boats in the summer, which was also the only time I allowed myself to read anything non-academic. I felt free and fulfilled in the summer, working outside and reading, but I didn’t admit it to myself. The psychological term for that is cognitive dissonance. The Edward Abbey quote about it is, “Sentiment without action leads to the ruination of the soul.” What does ruination of the soul look like? Me, the summer after I turned 21. Drinking and smoking weed and climbing mountains, a vain attempt at living life to the fullest. I sure was full of something. Then I flailed around in graduate school, for science of course. Only after dropping out did I realize how amazing it felt to write in English instead of trying to learn computer code, and without having to cite sources after every sentence.
If I’d been more self-aware, it might not have taken me nearly a decade of my adult life to realize what made me feel the best. I might have remembered the sense of accomplishment about the tree houses I helped build as a kid. The camping and fishing and dreaming of being an expert bowhunter. The science-fiction mash-ups I wrote and illustrated when I was seven, combinations of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Small Soldiers, and Antz. It’s taken most of the time since to realize that wasn’t just me being childish, that’s who I was. That’s who I am again, and I see ways of putting those passions to good use.
When I write, I feel like I’m where I should be. I know I’m doing something good in the world, even as I stop straining for goals. My mind hums with the process, and a comforting feeling falls over me, a confidence that holding this course will keep me where I should be, even as I jog into the fog of the future.
What does that for you? Have you heard of anyone making a living doing something similar? Is there a chance you could make a living from it? I hope so, because if more of us let our unique passion point the way forward, we can leave the world better than we found it. Today.