Sunday, July 15, 2018

I found my niche! (Lots of them, in fact)

"How many different careers have you had, Rich?"

I get asked this question more often than you might think - because I am, in fact, a mutt who has worn many different hats in my life. People have known me over the years as a computer programmer, a corporate manager, a freelance writer, a book author, a public speaker, and a psychotherapist. And that doesn't count youthful indiscretions like being a pizza delivery man, golf caddy, short-order cook or radio announcer.

Which brings up something I've always noticed: we tend to look down our noses at people who don't follow one path in life. Children are asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?," while adults are greeted with, "What do you do?" Most of us know better than to be racist, sexist or even ableist nowadays, but we are still thoughtlessly single-path-ist. We use terms like "dilletante" or the euphemistic "Rennaisance man" as a synonym for "lost and confused" - but never, in my experience, in a good light.

My diverse career actually makes more sense than people might think. Some paths were borne of neccessity - like when layoffs, technical obsolescence and burnout made my original 20-year software career impractical, and I started writing full time. Others were happy accidents, like when I wrote a book that unexpectedly became an international bestseller and I suddenly found myself speaking 40-50 times a year all over North America (a pace that continued until I retired last year).

Finally, some things made no particular career sense, except that I really wanted to do them. I secretly always wanted to be a psychotherapist all my life, but after decades of brushing it aside for more practical pursuits, a novel distance learning program in the 2000s put that within reach. After which I happily juggled writing, speaking and therapy for many years - often with people who knew me from one field scratching their heads about the others.

Which brings up a larger point. Why should any of us HAVE to have a single "brand"? What is wrong with wearing different hats as we go through life? If we can walk and chew gum at the same time, why can't we have more than one profession?

I actually think being a mutt is great. It always gave me multiple ways to make a living, any of which could be scaled up if needed. And it doesn't equate to "unsuccessful": personally I have never been fired or laid off, had to borrow money from people, or even been late paying a bill. I can truthfully say that I've done well at just about everything I've tried, and now I am happily retired (and still doing lots of different things). As far as I'm concerned, it's all good.

Far too many people feel trapped in someone else's idea of a good life. Others discover that their chosen career becomes obsolete or intolerable. And many suffer a horrible loss of self-esteem when what they do, for whatever reason, doesn't work out. But society is often far richer when people escape their career ruts: for example, I'm glad Walt Disney moved on from being a failed newspaper editor, and Andrea Bocelli gave up being a defense attorney to sing.

So my closing thought is to stop asking your children questions like "What do you want to do when you grow up?" Instead, ask them what they like. What they enjoy. What makes their heart sing. And as they get older, how they might get to do more of the things they love. And perhaps, with a little luck, lots of them!

(P.S. My favorite job of all? Hands down, being a stock clerk at a department store when I was eighteen - because the cute girl I met working there has been my partner ever since.)