When I was a kid, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. People would ask. They always ask. I never really knew what to say. I had a period where I told people I wanted to be a scientist. I had a period where I said I wanted to be a fireman. And, most notably, I had an early period where I really, really wanted to be a cow.
Most of my friends had their vocations picked out early. They had an interest, sparked by… I have no idea… and they stuck with it. Most of my childhood friends had a thing they wanted to be when they grew up, and it remained remarkably unchanged until they graduated high school and went off to college to pursue that thing.
I really didn’t. By the time I was nearing graduation, I was pretty much set on becoming an artist. But much like my early childhood ambition of being a “scientist,” being an “artist” isn’t really a thing. There are countless fields, and I had not narrowed in on one. And also, much like all of my early childhood ambitions, I actually didn’t have that ambition. It was a thing to say because people kept asking. It had simply morphed from “what do you want to be when you grow up?” to “what do you want to study in college?” I was good at drawing, so… artist.
Fortunately, I stumbled upon acting my senior year of high school, and it lit a spark in me unlike anything else I had ever experienced. I spent much of my childhood feeling invisible. This made me feel seen. I decided that acting was what I wanted to do. I was going to be an actor. High diddly dee, an actor’s life for me!
Now if you think a person who stumbled through their first 18 years of life having no genuine interest in anything had some type of coherent plan for their acting career, I hate to disappoint you. The plan was simple: go to college, show everyone I am The Best Actor, get all the lead roles, then move to California. There, I would be recognized as The Best Actor, and the rest, my friends… history.
Amazingly, this did not work out. After two years of acting in college, I had not started getting those lead roles, and I switched majors to Psychology. Why psychology? Because you have to major in something. I had reasons, and those reasons were just like the reasons I wanted to be a scientist or a fireman or a cow. All bullshit. But I got that degree. Then I worked for a dinner theatre, where I did finally get those lead roles. This emboldened me to move to CA as planned, where I basically wasted my time and never auditioned for anything. The only role I landed was Merlin the Wizard at Disneyland, which will now always be the greatest role I ever played. Yes, the pinnacle of my success as an actor was performing a children’s show at a theme park.
Then I went on to do a bunch of other random nonsense, and now here I am, a professional software developer. I am 43 years old and one year into the latest thing I’m going to be when I grow up. Spoiler alert, I’m not super passionate about it. It’s cool, and it pays the bills, and I am pretty good at it (most of the time), but is it “the thing”? Probably not. Many of my coworkers follow the news about the industry, are driven to learn things they are not even going to use right now, if ever, and I… can’t relate. It’s a job. I spend 40 hours per week doing it, and give it my all for those 40 hours, but that’s the limit to my drive.
At this point, I think it’s time to embrace the fact that there isn’t “the thing” for me. There never has been. I have tried to convince others there is. I have tried to convince myself as well. But it’s not true. I am a person who likes to do a variety of things. I have diverse interests. I flit from thing to thing like a butterfly sipping nectar from a field of flowers. Or at least, that’s the positive metaphor I hope is appropriate.
But what I fear is a different metaphor. This image is one of an astronaut, in an escape pod, drifting through space. He might find the wreckage of some craft or station and spend some time extracting whatever is left there to survive, but then he has to move on or die. There is no true joy to any of this, it’s just necessary. I’ve gotten better at finding resources in these burnt-out hulks. I spent five years in the last one before launching back into the void. My latest find seems pretty good. There’s a lot of good stuff to scavenge. But no matter how rich the supply, I can’t help but see it as finite.
I have struggled with this idea for many years. When I suggested to my now ex-wife that, perhaps, acting was not something I was going to do for the rest of my life, her reaction was one of horror. If being an actor was not my personal identity and driving ambition in life, she didn’t know if she could even be my partner. That’s how much it meant to her. Her identity as an actor and filmmaker was so ingrained that she couldn’t even see herself as the partner of someone who did not share this ambition.
It’s hard to know what to make of it. In the US, we are told from an early age that our vocation should be a core part of our personal identity. That’s what all this “what do you want to be when you grow up?” stuff is about. It is to tell children, you can’t just be a person who enjoys certain things and not others. That all has to coalesce into a career , or it’s just nonsense. As an adult, the first question most people ask will be “what do you do?” What is your career? Who you are and any interests you have outside of what pays the bills is secondary, if ever acknowledged at all.
I wish I could end this on a positive, self-affirming note, but frankly I don’t have a clue how to do that. “Do the thing you love, and you will never work again.” We’ve all heard that one. Well, what if you don’t have that thing you love THAT MUCH? Then to reverse the phrase, you’ll work every day. You’ll drift.