Ask a child what they want to be when they grow up.
Now, think about what you do. The dreams you had when you were their age. And compare the two.
I cannot tell you precisely when I lost my imagination.
As a boy, my two great influences were sports and the outdoors. When I thought about my future, I envisioned myself becoming a professional soccer player, a marine biologist, or a zoologist—the last two, because of my love for the PBS nature shows of the Kratt Brothers. For the bio of my 8th grade yearbook, I wrote down either environmental scientist or New York Yankee.
In high school, my attention shifted. I loved music. I played in a band and thought we'd get signed to a major label and become famous by 17. If that didn't work out, I could write books and essays, like Hemingway or Jonathan Swift.
I had this dream of moving out of state and studying writing at Oberlin College in Ohio. I wanted to know the world outside Bayonne, New Jersey. But my parents asked me to stay in state for school and make sure it got paid for. At William Paterson University, I majored in Latin American studies, which doesn't exactly translate as a career path to Spanish-speaking parents (the Spanish word for used for "major" in Argentina, carrera, translates literally to career, so "I'm taking a career in Latin American Studies" makes no sense). I was on a full scholarship but nearly dropped out my junior year to move to Cambodia to coach soccer and work as Christian missionary.
There are more detours on the road to where I am today. After college, I worked a crappy job as a bill collector, doing the work rich, powerful people didn't want to do by dealing with the people they were robbing. At 24, I went back to school for journalism, dead set on becoming a kind of Wright Thompson, one of our great living sports writers. When that mission failed, the dream died and I recreated myself as a "communications strategist" and other terms which provide no clear explanation of what I actually do. I'm a writer—I just stopped seeing myself as one, because the road to becoming the kind of writer I want to be was choked with weeds and vines and burning tires and obstacles I wasn't brave enough to pass.
But, I'm fighting to get my imagination back.
A few months ago, I found the poem "Letter to the Person Who, During the Q&A Session After the Reading, Asked for Career Advice" by Mathew Olzmann. It's one I've been clinging to when I feel like a defector who has abandoned everything he wished he'd become for a counterfeit dream. I printed it out and taped it to my office wall, so I don't forget it.
If you feel like I do about the path you're on, I hope you find some joy in it too.
The confusion you feel is not your fault.
When we were younger, guidance counselors steered us
toward respectable occupations: doctor, lawyer,
pharmacist, dentist. Not once did they say exorcist,
snake milker or racecar helmet tester.
Always: investment banker, IT specialist, marketing associate.
Never: rodeo clown.
Never: air guitar soloist, chainsaw
juggler or miniature golf windmill maker.
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?
You need to follow your passion
as long as your passion is not poetry and is definitely a hedge fund.
If I could do it over, I’d suggest an entry level position
standing by a riverbank,
or a middle management opportunity
winding like fog through the sugar maples of New England.
There’s a catastrophic shortage
of bagpipe players, tombstone sculptors and tightrope walkers.
When they tell you about the road ahead,
they forget the quadrillion other roads.
You’ll know which one belongs to you because
it fills you with astonishment or ends with you being reborn
as an alpine ibex — a gravity-defying goat, able to leap
seven feet in the air, find footholds where none exist,
and (without imagining it could ever be anything else)
scale a vertical sheet of solid rock
to find some branches, twigs, or wild berries to devour.
Listen to Olzmann read the poem for the Asian American Writers' Workshop.