Saturday, April 24, 2010

1996: what color was my parachute?

I was looking through old files for something else, and found this. Since you're reading this blog, you know what finally happened. Math was hard, but I stopped letting that stop me. I bought an algebra book, re-learned algebra and trigonometry, took science classes, went to medical school. Apparently What Color Is Your Parachute? knew what it was talking about. Maybe.

Also I had kind of forgotten how into REM I was back then.

Whenever someone asks me what I’m up to these days, I say, “Oh, trying to figure out what I’m doing with my life.” Then they chuckle. Heh heh. They’ve been there.

But were they ever really as desperate as I am now? Because I’ve turned not once, but twice to What Color Is Your Parachute? It’s maybe the most famous self-help book ever--so I must be in bad shape, right? The concept of the book is that if you follow its instructions, you’ll not only find just some job, but you’ll figure out exactly what your ideal job is and then get it. I’m a product of the culture that this book helped to create--it was first published a year after I was born. Maybe that’s why I hold on to the belief that it is actually possible to find an ideal job, a true calling, even outside of “Lottery Winner.”

A while ago, I was housesitting in a house so beautiful that I went out and bought twenty lottery tickets so maybe I could buy a house just like it. At least one of the beautiful house’s owners had read an early edition of What Color Is Your Parachute? which they still had laying around, marked up with notes. So, after my lottery tickets yielded no results, I sluffed my way through a few of the book’s career exercises. I came up with a plan, which was a pretty good plan except that it depended on some people who didn’t agree with it. After that, I managed to ignore my career woes for a while. Actually, I was sort of ignoring my career, period. My new boss, the smarty-pants bastard, eventually sat me down and told me that I’d better start shaping up. Which reminded me--oh yeah!--I still hadn’t figured out what I was doing with my life.

So--back to Parachute. This time I started in on informational interviews. A series of what-do-you-dos and how-do-you-like-its yielded a great deal of interesting information, not least of which was that if you sit people down and ask them about themselves, some of them don’t really want you to leave. Maybe ever. A couple of people told me I should be a doctor. Sounded cool, but difficult. I’m like that talking Barbie--math is hard. Plan B was a little more accessible: account planner at an ad firm. Until I realized that having Plan A as “Be a doctor” and Plan B as “Be an account planner” was a little too much like talking Barbie. I still really hadn’t figured it out.

So, back to the book. I started doing all the exercises, not just the few I didn’t find depressing. While I was writing a list of everything that I had ever learned, I was listening to an REM song and it occured to me that part of what bothers me most about submitting to the indignity of this kind of exercise is the overwhelming sense that most of my heroes never really did this. When REM were a bunch of students in Athens, GA, they just started playing music because they loved playing music, and then they started putting out singles and albums and videos, until they became the huge phenomenon they are today. I just can’t see that there would have been any career self-help books in the process.

From when I was fifteen to when I was twenty-four or so, I had a calling. I wanted to be a movie director and I wanted to make frequent interview appearances in oversized magazines and late night talk shows. But let’s not speak of those mistaken notions now. Let’s focus on the future: I need a new plan. I know that What Color Is Your Parachute? should help me find some reasonably satisfying direction, but I yearn for something more: a new calling, a new certainty that what I want is what I will be best at and enjoy the most and give the most to the world by doing. And also that it will be infinitely glamourous and make me famous and loved.

The problem is that this book, this Parachute is designed to move you away from obvious answers and convince you that, for instance, everything you like about being a movie director is actually fulfilled by being a freeway engineer. The idea is, obvious answers aren’t always the best answers. Sometimes you’d actually be happier designing freeways or selling plastics. But in the direction of obvious answers also lies the allure of glamour--of what everyone wants, or thinks they want. Diving with sincerity into a career self-help book is a sure sign that you’re giving up glamour. An important step, no doubt, but also, inevitably, a sort of depressing one. This isn’t going to be about your calling, the moment in Athens, Georgia where everyone realized you really had something. This is about settling down and going to work.

1 comment:

emily said...

And we're all glad you decided on Plan A, which also got you love, if not fame. A pretty good deal for only ten years of sleepless hard work!