When I was growing up nearly everything that interested me was ruled out as a possible life path with the words, “You’ll can’t make a living
doing that.” I couldn’t be a ballerina. I couldn’t be a gardener. I couldn’t be Wonder Woman. I couldn’t be a mud pie baker.
Like every high school student in America, my last two years were filled with the question, “What are you going to major in when you get to college?” Once again everything that I found interesting enough to spend time studying was dismissed with slightly more sophisticated versions of the same statement. “What can you do with that degree?” or “You won’t make enough money doing that.” So writing was out. Acting was out. History and Literature were out. When I discovered philosophy that was out, too. Because I am rebellious and stubborn, I got my BA in Theatre. I love theatre and was sure that I could ‘make’ it. Whatever that meant. A combination of a fear of sexism and a fear of economics kept me from making a serious stab at an acting career. That will be the subject of another blog.
Time has past and I have seen a lot of the world. I have met a vast array of interesting people. In that time I discovered a secret that is so secret even the NSA doesn’t know it. Here it is – If you are passionate about something you can find a way to make a living doing it. You may not become rich and famous, but you can support yourself and a family. The thing is, there are millions of careers out there that require obscure knowledge, unusual proclivities and bizarre skills. There are people who get paid to tell you how old a rock is. They are Geochronologists. There are people who get paid to make food look pretty. They’re Food Stylists. There are people who get paid to travel around and watch high school and college sports. They’re Athletic Scouts. There are people who collect the venom from snakes. They’re Snake Milkers. Ant Catchers dig up the ants for ant farms. Odor Judgers smell armpits to see if a new deodorant works. An Ethical Hacker is paid to hack by companies who want their systems to be hack proof. This last one is my favorite – a professional Cat Catcher is paid to come to your house and get your cat into the cat carrier for you.
Furthermore, just because the chances are slim that you will get the top job in your chosen field doesn’t mean that you can’t earn a living in that field. Not everyone who studies archaeology gets to become Harrison Ford. Ooops, I mean gets to become an archaeologist. However, an archaeologist needs an amazingly big support staff. They need people to help dig, to clean the items they find, to analyze what was found, to catalog it. There are a lot of people who work in archaeology who are not archaeologists. I know a man who got a degree in zoology. He doesn’t work in a zoo. He works for a college in the biology department. He takes care of all the animals that the biologists are studying. I know a woman who used to get paid to measure the cracks in the bodies of airplanes. I know a person who has made an entire career of traveling around to beautiful nature places all over the US and Canada. He takes pictures of place, animals and things that he thinks look cool. He prints them as posters and sells them all over the world. How’s that for a cool job?
Today, thanks to a wonderful woman named Erin McKean, her TED talk is Erin McKean: The Joy of Lexicography, I learned that there is such a thing as a lexicographer. That is some whose job it is to study words. They study spelling, pronunciation, meanings, etymology and everything else you can possibly imagine relating to words. Usually they take all that knowledge and compile a dictionary or edit one. For someone who loves word play as much as I do, this would be a really cool job. When I was in college I never even knew it was an option.
During this back-to-school time of year when many people I know are starting high school and college, I have heard a lot of people dismiss a subject they love because they do not believe they can make a living with the degree. They reject archaeology for accounting; creative writing for education; geology for healthcare services. They are being practical and have an eye on their future. Practicality in important. Earning enough money to survive is the first job of an adult. However, it breaks my heart to see bright talented young people turn away from what they love in the name of being ‘practical.’ It is important to feed the spirit as well as the body. I believe that we need to remember that doing something we love and doing something practical are not mutually exclusive. There are people all over the world doing work they love and getting paid for it. Typically, they are happier and more fulfilled than people who do a job because it pays the bills.
So if you are a young person trying to decide “What to do with your life’ or if you are an adult trying to decide what to do with the rest of your life, follow your heart. When some grey unimaginative person asks you, “What can you do with THAT degree?” Tell them, “I don’t know. That’s the point. I’ll find out when I get there.”