"There are only two types of jobs in the world," the Argentine writer Hernán Casciari said in a 2017 essay. "Those that existed back when we were still pure, and those that didn't."
In Eden, Casciari argued, there were cartoonists and cabinet makers but no policemen or soccer referees. The noble professions—clown, baker—tethered to the most basic human needs, they’ve existed forever. The others—politician, banker, and, worst of all, lawyer—emerged out of chaos and trickery, the consequence of humanity’s great downward spiral.
“The jobs that have not been here forever, those are the impure ones—the ones that arrived only once the world was shit,” Casciari said.
As I listened to 13 students in my first-year studies class give their final presentations this past Wednesday, I heard Casciari’s voice over loudspeakers in my brain. Not because what the kids said matched his predictions of where we’re going: a world full of paper pushers and white-collar pickpockets. But because their pursuits were still free of the contaminants that have sickened so many of us.
“I just want to retire my mom and dad,” said the first to speak. He wasn’t the only one—at least four had the same goal: buy their parents a house, pay off their mortgage, get them to finally quit working. “I want to open hospitals in Nigeria,” another said. His goal: to do it by 35, so he could retire young then either travel or go into business for himself. There’s time to hammer out the details. Two kids plan to become engineers for Tesla. Another hasn’t declared a major or chosen a career yet, but he knows he wants to live on the West Coast after graduation. Another expects to move overseas, work in marketing or event planning for Liverpool Football Club in England, then come back to the States to work as a high school athletics director.
I wonder what I would’ve said at their age in my own first-year studies class at Willy P.
Probably a historian. I want to find a way to read and write books, I would’ve told Susan Dinan, my professor, and a dozen bored students just as unsure of the road ahead as I was. Even If I would’ve said something else, I’ve known the image I’ve been working for since my best friends and I fantasized about our future lives as high school juniors. It’s saved deep in my mind palace: a home covered floor-to-ceiling in mahogany bookshelves—the kind of place where you could homeschool kids and they wouldn’t turn out weird, because instead of fundamentalist teachings from Young Earth creationists in Pensacola, they’d be studying the works of C.S. Lewis, Kierkegaard, and Sherwood Anderson.
But I’ve already told you. I lost my dreams along the way. I let them die. Only in recent months have I begun the painful process of resuscitating them. Of rediscovering my imagination.
Regardless of whatever surface differences—religion, gender, politics—exist to divide humanity, I’m convinced the lot of us are working towards identical ends. Health and happiness. Meaning and purpose. To leave our kids a better world than the one we inherited. One where the neighborhoods are safe, the schools are good, and there’s enough money to feast on Thanksgiving and Christmas and store away the rest for vacations to Paris and Nairobi, places our teachers have had us read about in books from the time we were little, no place off limits.
So how did we stray so far from paradise?
When did we stop dreaming of becoming astronauts and marine biologists, and instead decided to become personal injury attorneys?
When did things get so twisted?
In the essay I wrote in June about losing sight of my dreams, I shared the poem “Letter to the Person Who, During the Q&A Session After the Reading, Asked for Career Advice" by Matthew Olzmann. In that beautiful, rambling poem, Olzmann says:
In this country, in the year I was born, some 3.1 million other people were also born, each with their own destiny, the lines of their palms predicting an incandescent future. Were all of them supposed to be 'strategy consultants' and 'commodity analysts'?
Waterslide companies pay people to slide down waterslides to evaluate their product. Somehow, that’s an actual job. So is naming nail polish colors. Were these ever presented as options?
I’m fortunate. I’m a writer. I get paid to sit in front of a computer and type, even if the words I write are not always my favorites, the projects one I'd personally choose to work on, or the name on the page my own. I was once a bill collector, a doggie daycare worker, an unpaid intern.
Still I’ve missed the boat on retiring my parents.
They continue to help me more than I’ve ever helped them, despite all my years of education and white-collar comfort. I feel the shame of it—the burden that so often afflicts the children of immigrants, the firsts in families to get accepted to college and out of the place they were born in. In his review for The Farewell, director Lulu Wang’s 2019 film about being both Chinese and American, trapped always between two worlds, the writer E. Alex Jung said, “If children are extensions of their parents’ lives, then immigrant children often contain the promise of a dream deferred.”
My first-year studies students are all young men, mostly Black and Hispanic, with one Filipino and an Italian. They’re participating in a program the University of Tennessee created this year to support male students of color, statistically the least likely to finish college after starting. That’s the reason I’m their professor. At least half of them are the first in their families born in America. Like me, they seek to pay off the debt of gratitude they owe for their parent’s sacrifices. I hope they will succeed where I haven’t yet.
This year, though, I’ve finally uncovered targets I’m taking aim at every day, battering them with the ammunition I've kept stored in deep reserves somewhere inside my gut. I've discovered we all have it—we just have to go looking for it.
My goals are neither money nor bylines, though they may come with the pursuit. I’m grinding away so that I never, ever miss a soccer practice or scouting trip. So I can be the one to drop off my daughter at school in the mornings then pick her up and take her to get Cruze Farm ice cream, because my schedule will no longer be choked with pointless afternoon meetings that steal me away from her. I’m working so Haley can book two-week vacations to Barcelona, Venice, and every place we read about in the books that will fill the bookcases of our next home in a cul-de-sac where the kids will have basketball hoops and soccer goals beside the garage. And in that garage we won’t have cars but workout equipment for Haley’s home gym, and a desk where I’ll tie flies with my friends and keep fishing poles ready for quiet Tuesday morning trips to the Holston.
I’m working so that in 2026, when the men’s World Cup comes to U.S. shores, the kids and I will spend an entire month traveling up and down, east and west, chasing our favorite teams, instead of watching from a television set at home.
Of course, I do realize: we can’t all become the people we dreamed we would be at 18. Many of my students will switch majors and fail classes. In the next three-and-a-half years, they may meet their future spouses or transfer schools. Their parents may get sick. They’ll choose to do something practical, for the money or the healthcare, like I once did. They’ll forget about the hospitals they dreamed of opening and about living in vans on the edges of a national park in California. But they may not.
They may stack onto their dreams. Their dreams may sprout new branches.
While the baby tore apart the living room this weekend, I found solace in David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet, a Netflix film about the man who is the voice of many of our favorite nature documentaries. In the opening scene, Attenborough stands in the ruins of Chernobyl, the Ukrainian city home to the nuclear disaster that inspired the horrifying HBO series of the same name. He surveys the consequences of human avarice. If only those scientists had been feeding orangutans in Borneo and not playing about with chemicals capable of destroying the lives of millions.
Over an hour, Attenborough shows you all we’ve done wrong. All we’re doing to kill this planet day after day. But then he reverses the narrative. He shows what we’re doing to save it: solar farms in Morocco and sustainable fishing in Palau. The narrative concludes with him back in Chernobyl. A place once too toxic for human civilization has become a sanctuary for bison, elk, and at least 60 rare species of animals and plants. Out of death came life.
Maybe the same is possible with our dreams, no matter how late we've started or how long we've ignored the beating inside of our chests.