Back On the Rock

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Confessions of A Dilettante

A few years ago, I went for an informational interview at a cable channel in New York City. I’d had enough of consulting and was casting around for something new to do. I loved this channel. I was a regular, dedicated viewer. I had no idea what kind of job I’d be suited for there, but I figured my love of their programming was enough. Besides, wasn’t the point of an informational to gather information?

My interviewer looked at my resume, groaned, and sighed.

“Your resume is…” he paused. “Choppy.

“Fund raising. Consulting. Writing. Education School. Business School. You seem to be somewhat of a dilettante.”

His tone suggested that I should be insulted, but the word delighted me. Dilettante. It sounded as yummy as dessert, as fun as flirting. I’d spent my life dodging labels, but here was one that, oddly enough, seemed to fit. I left his office certain that I didn’t want a job there; feeling as relieved as an addict ready to own up to my demons.

“Hello. My name is Kellie. I am a dilettante.”

Before I adopted my new label, I often was called fickle. I prefer the buffet to ordering à la carte, the triathlon to the marathon, multiple projects to the single job. My brain requires a constant diet of change and challenge that often thwarts expectations for grown-up behaviour. Conventional wisdom depicts growing up as a narrowing; all your life’s interests and possibilities slowly swirling down a drain called maturity. I disagree. Growing up should be about expanding, carving your own path through an increasing number of ideas and activities that excite your imagination.

This puts me at odds with the experts who say focus is the key to success. Pick one thing and do it well. That works for the lucky among us who have a single over-arching passion, but the rest of us can do better than the soul-sucking intellectual prostitution for which society rewards us. We look down on people who lend others their bodies for money not love. But we expect people, in fact, we train people, to rent the truest parts of themselves – their brains, their hearts, their souls – to enterprises that bring a paycheck but no passion.

For most of us the monthly paycheck is as dirty as crumpled bills on the nightstand. We take a slice of ourselves – if we’re lucky, a slice we like, but more often a slice we’ve been told we’re good at, or a slice that matches the first opportunity that comes along – and make a career of it, auctioning it off to the highest bidder. We let the rest of ourselves, the best of ourselves die, or stuff it into a narrow box labeled “hobby”.

Not for me.

My over-arching goal is to experience as much joy as possible. To do as many of the things I love as possible. That means that my career path hasn’t followed a straight line. I have been, among other things, a fund raiser, strategy consultant, children’s book author, publisher, producer, media critic, feature writer and editor – a fairly random assortment of jobs connected by a love of words and ideas. Three years ago I gave up the notion of a job altogether, and now I work exclusively on projects; sometimes long, sometimes short, but always something that truly excites me. It’s not the easiest way to make a living, but it’s the only way to make a life that’s truly mine.

I’ve got the best opportunities just by following an interest as far as I can. I wrote my first feature, on spec, just for the heck of it, driven more by the love of writing than by any certainty that it would get published. That first story led to more assignments, which led to more newspapers, more magazines. A frustrated shopping expedition to find Jamaican children’s books for my niece led me to write my own – a story meant for her that ended up being incorporated into the New York City school system. A phone call from a friend with a son newly diagnosed with autism led to my interest in the subject and a year-long project working on a multimedia package for children with the disorder. If an idea or a comment excites me, chances are there’s a project that will flow from it.

It disturbs me that our educational system doesn’t value this brand of vocational guidance. We pooh-pooh ideas like personal fulfillment and then wonder why our bars are filled with workers desperate to drown the bilious after-taste of the week. We teach our children to prepare themselves for a job, a “good job”, but we don’t challenge them to create it themselves. We don’t teach them to believe that they can draw a straight line from their hearts to their bank accounts.

When I was thirteen, attending my local results factory called Campion College, I had to make a list of the subjects I planned to sit at CXC, in addition to the required English Language, Literature and Mathematics. The label I wore at the time was “Brains” and Campion expected great things of me. The Dean of Students looked at my list of subjects – French and Spanish; Advanced Mathematics and Physics; and History – and declared it ridiculous.

“These subjects make no sense together. What are you going to do with this?” If I’d had a window to my future I would have said, “I am preparing myself for a hybrid career that requires equal dexterity with language and numbers.” I didn’t know that then, but I stood firm: “These are the subjects I like.” My mother was summoned. The Principal weighed in: “She is too smart for this. She will get all ones. She should do the sciences.” Thankfully, I had a mother who trusted my judgment and a father who believed the only reason to do anything is because you truly love it. I got my way. Campion still got their ones.

I was a model student, just not the “doctor, lawyer, Indian Chief” model for which Campion tried to prepare me. For me, the purpose of education was then and still is to learn things that I might like to know, to gain skills that I might like to use someday, any day, or just to pursue an idea because I damn well feel like it. I have amused myself all the way through my academic career, adding random skills to my toolkit, not knowing when I might need them, but always surprised by how surely they are eventually put to use.

I checked the website of that cable channel recently. My interviewer is still there. Four more years in the same post; pushing paper, judging young, wide-eyed dreamers.

I think of the things I’ve worked on since I met him. The ideas I’ve been able to cross off my wish list and I say two prayers.

One of thanks for the dreams I’ve been able to fulfill. One for the dreams that I’m certain he’s let die.


Blogger financiallyfreeforever said...

This is some great writing. Keep it up!
Do you have any published books that we can read?

10:34 AM  

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