Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
~ “The Graduate”
Take a minute and read this. Seriously. Whether you just graduated, or you’re graduating soon, and whether you are matriculating (doesn’t that sound dirty?!) from high school or college.
I have a story to tell you, and because I know that you’re busy drinking and depositing checks and whatnot, I’ll tell you the important part up front: follow your heart. Don’t choose a school or a major or a job because you “should,” or because it’s sensible or lucrative or your parents would like it. Life is too long. Life is too hard. You will be sad and sorry, and I will be sad and sorry for you.
The story starts with my high school graduation. I was a good musician, but I really wanted to be a writer. It was what I had always loved, it was the thing that made me feel alive and in sync with the universe. Music was harder. I hated practicing, I had terrible nerves, and I spent a lot of time throwing up and shaking so hard I dropped my bow. I had to choose whether to go to college to be an English Major and do creative writing, or go to a conservatory and be a musician.
I picked music because it was harder and that seemed like what people were supposed to pick—the thing that involved sweat and guts and hard work. Not the thing that made life sing, the thing where the hours went by and you looked up to realize that you had forgotten to eat or shower.
This was particularly preposterous because both choices were dicey in terms of job prospects; there aren’t many professional musicians or writers who are living lives of professional ease. Both are competitive, and both are crowded with talented dreamers.
I chose music. To make it even harder (but more sensible) I chose Music Ed, which I hated with a passion. Within a year and a half I was trying to kill myself, calling my parents from a payphone in Boston asking them to please, please get me out of there.
I transferred somewhere where I could be an English Major, which I loved. Every minute. I read, I wrote, I was on track to be an academic, a journalist or (if I dared) a writer. And at the end, I couldn’t do it. It didn’t seem right to go off and do something I enjoyed, because it was cheating.
I went to law school. Everybody tried to talk me out of it. My parents, who always knew I was a writer, said it didn’t seem like a good fit. Both of the English professors from whom I requested letters of recommendation wrote me long letters that basically said “WTF?!” although in a much nicer ways. My friends in law school told me that they just “didn’t see it.”
I picked it because it seemed sensible, productive and difficult enough to make me a non-flaky and responsible person. I hated every single second.
The first year I never had any idea what was going on, nothing I read made any sense, and I knew it was a mistake.
I kept going. I graduated. I passed the bar in Massachusetts. When I didn’t find a job there I moved home and passed the bar in Michigan. I worked for about seven years, and was incredibly relieved when I got married, had a baby and had a husband who made it possible for me to quit practicing law and just be Sam’s mom for a while.
I never went back. I’m still paying the loans. I don’t know what I was thinking.
And after years of growing up, of accepting myself as the flaky, artsy, hypersensitive and un-sensible creature that I always was…I started writing again. It was a door opening into balance, joy and the kind of hard work that feels really good when you’re done because, well, it’s the right work to be doing.
People like what I write. They pay me for it. I don’t make as much money as I would be making if I had a music teaching gig, or if I still practiced law (!) but also I don’t hate myself, my life or my work.
I’m telling you that’s a good deal. It’s the right way to go. No matter what anybody says.
If you aren’t sure, make the best decision you can based on your talents and passions—a good clue is what you liked doing as a little kid. Building forts? Saving birds? Drawing dresses? I see an architect, a vet or a designer. Start there.
And if there’s a real love, a thing that makes you excited just thinking about it, do that thing. You might have to have a day job to pay off your student loans, but that won’t kill you because at night, and on your days off, you will paint, you will design, you will bake, you might even write.
Here, if you stuck with me to the end, is the take-home message one more time: don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until you’re in your forties or fifties to allow yourself to do the thing that you love and be brave enough to see if you can make a living doing it.
You get only this one life, and it’s shorter than you think.
Make it sing.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Kevin Dooley on Flickr
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