By the time I was in third grade, I knew the answer to the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The question is always formed this way, with these particular words. The object of this question is to determine not the philosophy of the individual, but the type of career that is most desirable. The presence of the word “be” in the question is worth noting. From an early age, children are trained through language to associate their career with their identity. Who you are is what you do and vice versa.
The very fact that the question is asked instills the importance of a job or career.
In Across the Universe, the character Max is eating Thanksgiving dinner in the late 1960s with his family in rural Massachusetts, at which point he announces his intention to drop out of his undergraduate studies at Princeton University.
His father asks him to get serious for once: “What are you going to do with your life?” He responds rebelliously, “Why is it always what will I do? Why isn’t the issue here who I am?” His uncle chimes in, “Because what you do defines who you are.” Max responds, “Who you are defines what you do,” and asks for confirmation from his new friend Jude from Liverpool. Jude replies with a different point of view: “Surely it’s not what you do, but the way that you do it.”
I loved being involved with music. I’ve known I’ve had musical talent and an enjoyment of the art since I was in kindergarten. In third grade, as I mentioned above, I knew what I wanted to be: a teacher. It should have come as no surprise to me when in high school I decided that my purpose (my being) was to become a music teacher. When I was studying in college to be a music educator, the piece of advice that stuck with me the most was uttered by a professor most likely while I was still a freshman: “If there’s any other career that would make you happy, choose that now. Continue down this path only if teaching music is the only thing that you can or want to do.”
This advice stuck with me for several reasons. First, music wasn’t my only talent or interest. I excelled in every subject at school (when I wasn’t bored). My interests ranged from computer programming to physics to languages to mathematics. I even liked history when I was learning on my own rather than within public school curriculum. The world was open to me, but I stuck with music.
Many years later, after some bad experiences, I left teaching and the arts. My current choice of a day job happened mostly by accident. I needed a job after leaving the arts, so I started as a temp in a financial company. I moved into accounting after that because the accounting department was nearby and they needed someone, and have switched jobs at the same company a few times since then. This job, which is unfortunately becoming a career, does not define who I am. It has nothing to do with the person I am, it’s only the result of a series of circumstances defined by others.
In the arts, I was a teacher and a leader. I earned the respect of my peers by being very good at what I did. I even taught others how to be leaders. I was a great motivator. Of course! Music is something that is exciting, invigorating, and essential for the soul. The arts are necessary for modern culture. In my current career choice, being a leader is a joke. It’s a world of middle-managers and meaningless tasks. Why should I get excited about any activity that is not directly changing the world for the better in a way that satisfies the ideals that are important to me? Sure, it’s important to someone that I make sure that one department of our company pays back another department of our company for whatever expense they happened to incur. But how is that changing the world, how is this meaningful or satisfying?
So I have Consumerism Commentary. That’s more fulfilling. I write, usually nonsense like this, and reach more people than I’ve reached in any other facet of my life. For someone who has been building communities and leading smaller groups of people for almost 20 years, that is definitely cool. But Consumerism Commentary is an accident like my current job, though it is a happy accident. I don’t believe I’m changing the world, but I’m happy if I help someone get to a piece of information faster, or on the rare occasion, make someone think about something, anything they’ve taken for granted. But I don’t even use my real name, so whatever I’m building with Consumerism Commentary doesn’t exist in the “real world.”
I don’t want to be defined by my role at my day job, and without sharing my real identity online, I can’t be defined by my blogging endeavors. If I were still teaching music or involved in the arts, I would agree that who you are defines what you do. But I’m not, at least not at the moment. So I’m resigned to agreeing with Jude for now.
Image credit: ^riza^
Updated January 16, 2010 and originally published April 29, 2008.