Do you know what cryptozoology is? Merriam-Webster defines it as the study of and search for legendary animals, in order to evaluate the possibility of their existence. In the summer of 2008 I was fresh out of high school, 18 years old, and hell bent on becoming the crazy-hair-having expert the history channel interviews for their specials on Big Foot and the Jersey Devil.
However, by September summer had ended and my interest in becoming an authority on Seriously Cool Weird Stuff had waned and I’d moved on to become a psych major and aspiring criminal profiler. My love for reading case studies on the Mothman was still present but burned significantly less brightly.
Then January came, and I took a course on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien; by Spring Break, I was determined to become the legendary fantasy author 12-year-old me had always expected to become.
But then I found another dream (psychiatrist/radio host, like Fraiser, only cooler).
And then another (alderwoman).
And another (professional blogger/crafter).
And my current one (happy person with paying job and health insurance – specifics inconsequential).
After months and years spent dreaming and moving between goals – something that I felt naturally inclined to do – I began to doubt myself. I started to wonder if I was flighty. I am, after all, the girl with the half-finished novel from NaNoWriMo 2009, whose paintings languish incomplete in basement closets and whose special-interest blog (ghost hunting for people who are afraid of ghosts) hasn’t been updated in six months. My friends all had their ‘thing’ – qualities or goals that they were good at or known for. They were the charismatic artists whose work had already been shown in galleries and the hardcore pre-med kids who already knew the top three hospitals where they wanted to complete their residencies. What I wanted to be when I grew up changed with the phases of the moon, it seemed, and I was never more embarrassed of my indecisiveness than when I was around people who seemed to have it all figured out.
It got so bad that if I found myself in a conversation and the topic turned to one of my passing passions, I would fall silent, afraid to reveal my interest. (I had only knitted for a few weeks, and I never did finish those mittens. What do I know about it?) Surely other people would see right through me, calling me out as the wannabe I felt like. After all, I was Sharon, queen of hobbies, master of none (unless, of course, collecting hobbies is a thing, in which case I’ll start making room for my trophies right now). My ideas piled up like scraps of paper in the bottom of a purse and I let them gather dust there.
Where had my drive gone? Did I take a break, or did I quit?
The shame I felt at these unanswered questions started to suck away at my creativity, especially as I got older and no air-tight five-year-plan materialized. I became the voice in my head that says ‘Really, you’re starting another story? What is it this time? Robot vampires? Librarian werewolves? Shouldn’t you be working toward an actual career by now?’ I’d think of the unfinished novels gathering dust on my hard drive and the cocktail of guilt, self-loathing, and fear that stilled my hand before I had even started. I’d try to tamp down my interest in yet another new idea as if it were something shameful, proof of my fickle hobbyist heart.
This all changed when I neared the end of my college career. When you’re a senior, people start pressuring you to make up your mind about what you want to do next. In order to help you figure it out, advisers will sometimes suggest that you pinpoint individuals whose careers you admire and request casual meetings in order to pick their brains. Over the next few months I initiated a number of coffee dates with journalists, media moguls and PhD-wielding academics. Here’s what I learned:
- What the most interesting people all had in common is that their career paths were unpredictable. None of these people ended up where they thought they would; many of them had held multiple jobs throughout their lives (often concurrently). The talk radio veteran first earned an advanced degree in economics and maintained a lucrative career in the stock market while writing a column for the biggest daily newspaper in our city. The public relations expert helped launch a well-known community newspaper in the 1970’s and handled marketing for game-changing politicians before landing in academics. My favorite Shakespeare professor started out in engineering and spent years in the military before making his living explaining Titus Andronicus to confused English majors.
- The advice they gave me all amounted to the same thing: no matter who you are and what you want to do, you have to stay open to new ideas. You can’t start on any path with the inflexible attitude of ‘this is what I’m going to do and this is how I’m going to do it.’ Life never progresses so predictably, but that’s what will give you the best stories, twenty years down the line.
- Degrees are not destiny; what you majored in matters less than the experience and skill-set you have. The ability to explain why the skill-set you have will translate well into the new field you’re hoping to enter will get you far.
It turns out that I spent so much time believing that my collection of hobbies was something to be ashamed of when in reality it just may be those varied interests that can lead me to a full, exciting professional life. So in case you’re like me and no one has made it abundantly clear, allow me to do you the honor: you do not have to like or do only one thing. In life, you have to move forward, but that doesn’t mean that once you put something down you can never pick it back up again. The art of creation is taking all that you have crafted in fits of mad joy and bursts of creativity and seeing it with fresh eyes. It’s about discovering what jewels you can dig out of the piles of ash, because life is burning everything down and starting over again and again and again.
Bruce Lee once famously said to be like water (I know this because in the sixth grade I wanted to produce martial arts films and was obsessed with the man). So while my interest in crafting and UFO hunting ebbs, I will let my writing and publication design flow. It’s okay to harbor simultaneously different visions of the future, to hold onto dreams and goals that are as unique from one another as a bouquet of wildflowers. I used to be ashamed of what I viewed as my collection of half-lived lives. But they aren’t half-lived. They add up to something fuller than anyone has a right to deny. Have no shame in your twisting, shifting, changing passions. Follow creativity wherever it leads you, even – no, especially – if that place is a forest somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, where you’ve arrived on a search for Sasquatch, armed with nothing but beef jerky, a flashlight, and a crap load of enthusiasm. Who knows? You just might be the one to find him.