Dear Mary Hudson and Laura Cooper,
You’ll inevitably ask “what should I be when I grow up?” when you’re in high school if not before. You might not say it out loud to me, but you’ll whisper it to yourself. I already see it in both of your eyes when I tell you about my clients or you see Merianna preach or you visit Mommy at the hospital. You’ll have plentiful options.
So, here’s my advice (my mom gave me this gift, so I’m passing it on to you)…
Merianna and I were having a long conversation about education and learning on the way back home from a trip to Asheville last weekend when the topic of high school came up. I hadn’t thought much about high school lately, mostly out of embarrassment. My dad always thanks Wofford College for turning me into a young man. It took some time, but I think I realize what he meant in that I was just not a sentient being in high school. I remember glimpses and events, but I was a different person in high school in terms of personality and countenance.
All that to say, I do remember enjoying my classes in high school. As I related to Merianna, I don’t remember doing much homework but I was always interested in what I was learning to the point of taking classes my senior year rather than taking half the day off (yes, I was a dork).
It was during that senior year that I had a teacher I always respected tell me it was time to focus and start figuring out my specialty. Despite going through most of school in a fog, I remember this conversation clearly as it continues to impact me today. He was well meaning, but his advice caught me off guard as I loved the idea of studying physics, world history, art history, computer science, and philosophy all at once.
His advice was sound. I had a great opportunity to go to a prestigious college despite my circumstances. My family made many sacrifices for me to have that possibility and I had seemingly worked hard for the chance. It was time for me to figure out if I was going to be a doctor, a lawyer, perhaps a scientist or businessman.
When I got to college, I started down the path of a chemistry and computer science double major. That seemed logical and allowed me a couple of options in terms of career and life. All of that changed during a class on the Old Testament with Prof Bullard. At Wofford, a college with a strong identity of liberal arts learning for all students, there was a requirement for a number of history, literature, and religion classes. I was enjoying college so much after my freshman year that I decided to stay and take summer classes for those requirements (to get them out of the way, and all) rather than head home.
The first day of Old Testament class, I realized I had made a mistake. I was not going to be a computer science / chemistry major. I wasn’t going to earn a B.S. degree and move to California and start my own “internet cyber-economy company” (hey, it was 1996…we talked like that). Instead, I was going to be a religion major.
I walked to the registrar after the first day of OT class and changed my major. My family was supportive but didn’t seemed thrilled. Even I was confused. However, I knew it was the right path for me. I didn’t want to specialize.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Along with my religion classes, I had the chance to take whatever fancied my liking from Shakespeare to more computer science classes to sociology explorations of MLK to ancient art history. I was not following my high school teacher’s advice. I was embracing all that liberal arts had to throw at me, and I loved it.
However, what was I going to do after graduation? Well, graduate school of course!
I had an amazing opportunity to go to Yale and spend two years learning about religion, art, archaeology, and life outside of South Carolina. When I finished my studies there, I moved back to South Carolina and decided to teach (10th Grade English). That led to a series of teaching jobs in middle school (mostly 8th grade Physical Science, American History, Algebra, and English). In the midst of that I worked for a few marketing agencies, started my own, and went to seminary (and taught adjunct Old Testament for grumpy freshpeople at 7am).
I didn’t specialize. I didn’t whittle down my career choices or my specialties. It hasn’t been easy, but I love that my bedside table has books on a number of different subjects.
What prompted this reflection was a comment last week from a follower of mine on Twitter asking if they should follow me if they were only interested in hearing about a given subject. “Nope,” I responded. Life isn’t a content consumption project, and the content I produce ranges from tech to marketing to religion to history to NASCAR to whatever else I like to enjoy and learn about. That’s not some form of ADD or having a “scattered brain.” It’s curiosity. And I embrace it (and encourage you to as well).
Don’t settle, don’t feel like you need to ever narrow yourself down to a certain subject to gain more listeners or followers. Be yourself and embrace knowledge and curiosity.
Or as Wendell Berry put it rightly, practice resurrection:
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
It won’t be easy. You’ll have to make your own “job” but you’ll eventually enjoy it. Our economy in 2014 is already pointing towards a future where your generation will be tasked with doing just that as we transition from industrial to internet revolutions. But you’ll be fine. Study, read, and keep imagining. Look for ways to take what you’ve learned and improve the lives of others. You’ll create your job and live happily.