‘I just want to be inspired’ she said.
As far as cheesy, pull-at-your-heartstrings movie dialogue goes, that single line from ‘Jerry Maguire’ says it all.
As I’ve wound my way through the twisting careening career paths of adulthood, I’ve developed an intense and illogical aversion to mail from the Social Security Administration. The periodic letters that show up unannounced in my mailbox detailing just how many hours I’ve toiled away at any assortment of lifetime jobs are vaguely disturbing to me. While my Federal Government’s official interest and pride in my productivity is heart-warming, those mile markers leave me feeling hollow and a little forlorn, a living tribute to my own career indecision.
I remember the school scrapbooks of my childhood. You know the ones your Mom kept for you – a historical record, in case you actually grew up to be the President, the next Merv Griffin, or someone equally important. They had a space for a bad elementary school photo, hair askew, snaggle-toothed smile, horrible yellow and brown plaid short-sleeve shirt on. They had pockets in which to document for the Historic Record one’s scholastic achievement in all its glory. History shows I seemed to have had a lock on the ‘Best Citizen Award’. Most importantly, the school scrapbook had room for a few crucial lines of breathtaking insight.
Teacher’s Name ______________
Best friend _____________
When I grow up, I want to be ___________________________
Ahh. And there it was, and for all the world to see. I can remember agonizing over that single final line for what seemed like hours. What DID I want to be? What could I be? This seemed like a hell of a lot of pressure to lay on a kid? Perhaps I should outline the origins of the Universe while I was at it? My early predicted career choices were exciting, but not always so pragmatic.
By the time I reached 12 that last line was left inevitably, emphatically blank. I had no idea what I ‘wanted to be’. The entire consideration seemed alien and absurd to me. At a time of my life when next week was an eternity away, I aspired to nothing. I certainly had no plan to attain some fantasized and great future. I figured, someday, it would come to me.
When I was in my early twenties, adrift and floundering in a sea of collegiate confusion, my Dad said something to me that left me speechless. ‘I’m 50 years old, and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up’. Huh?? Intended to calm and comfort me no doubt, his statement instead rattled me. A career attorney at the highest ranks of the Department of Justice, a Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, uncertainty and indecision, of any kind, was incongruent with my rock-solid vision of Dad. Yet, he sounded like he really meant it. Was it really possible – to spend a career doing something you were really good at (and he was good at it) – and still have the kinds of doubts and uncertainty I’d felt my whole life? Apparently it was.
Fast forward to adulthood and the subtle and requisite pressures it demands. Raising a family, striving to be a dependable, decent husband and father, weaving a web of predictability and security, ironically leaves no time for ‘what I want to be when I grow up’. Years, decades slip by. Happy ones, but marked by the realization, immortalized by the occasional arrival of SSA letters, that I never filled in the last line of that scrapbook. I could have been an astronaut, a cowboy, a fireman, a dinosaur (though had that been a real option, I’d still have been spiritually torn – Brontosaurus or Triceratops?). I’d just never felt compelled to make a choice.
But something else happened along the way, as I traversed a series of career moves that were less conscious decisions than sudden curves in the river I chose to let myself be swept passively through. I realized it didn’t matter what I ‘did’. It mattered far more how I did it. This was decidedly different than the perspective, goals, and plans of almost everyone around me, but it felt true. It echoed another edict my father had shared with us, over and over, as kids growing up.
‘Any job worth doing is worth doing well’.
It was, along with ‘Don’t put beans up your nose’, one of the mantras of my youth.
‘Any job worth doing is worth doing well’. I’ve always liked that, I believe it, and since my Dad first said it to me, its become part of who I am. I hope it’s part of who I’m raising my kids to be. For 10 years in the United States Marine Corps, to the last 15 working for a progressive community healthcare system, it was the promise of forging something ‘exceptional’ that kept me waking up encouraged and ready to go to work. With more career years behind me than ahead, I really hope for only one simple thing. I’m comfortable knowing I’ll never wake with a certain knowledge of my personal destiny. I’ll never decide what I want to be when I grow up. And I’m cool with that. I only hope as I traverse the remaining years of my ‘career’, that I can make the journey with people who want to do amazing things, and spend every day trying to make it happen. And that I can be that kind of person to those, whoever they are, that I work with.
‘I just want to be inspired’ she said.
Me too Dorothy – me too.