All the pieces, all the time

Even when I can break projects down into manageable chunks, or work on them at a reasonable pace, I still have moments when I feel like I’m being pulled in a million directions at once. I wish for that elusive singular focus, to comes home every day to that one thing that drives me.

When I was a kid, there was a question that adults always loved to ask: What do you want to be when you grow up?

From 8-12, I might have said “Writer”, or “Baseball Player”. And then it turned into “Musician”, “Rock Star”, “Cook”, and I tried those things in real life and they were cool, but I didn’t have any grand imperative to keep going, to take them all the way. I didn’t envision a title, a career, a final place that I could set as a destination where I could stop and say “I’ve arrived”.

I had a friend who said she wanted to be a marine biologist. It confounded me. Where did she get that from? Is it because she liked dolphins, and that was a title for a person who did dolphin things? She held the same answer for years, and I wondered where her conviction came from, her aim so steady and true.

Running into another friend just after high school, I offered that same tired query, and he replied “Thoracic surgeon”. I nodded in slight confusion, then looked it up when I got home. I was perplexed. Not just surgeon – he had a specialty nailed down already. The specificity of it boggled my mind.

Perhaps I overestimated the commitment behind these pronouncements. Perhaps everyone else who had a clear answer on hand had just that – an answer on hand for that redundant question, knowing that answering properly is part of what’s expected of young folks. They should aspire to be something, or to want to be something, even if the adults know it’s impossible.

The adults will nod, like they’ve had some insight into young person’s brain, or at least have some reassurance that this one has a plan. They will be something. They’re not just going to keep dying their hair and playing in punk bands and fucking shit up, though that was legitimately my plan for a while. (I suppose I’ve just refined my aims slightly. Still dying the hair, still playing music loudly, still fucking shit up, but on more of a discursive level.)

I’d prefer to think that most people are also secretly confused and fumbling through this world while somehow presenting a tidy and polished exterior. I’d prefer that over a suspicion that’s been shadowing my whole life, that Other People have that thing called Knowing What To Do With Their Lives and I’m totally missing it.

So I line up my rainbow-fill array of interests like a package of pencil crayons in their pristine beginning-of-the-school-year completeness, and pack them into my backpack. This is the assemblage of things that are me, that are always with me, that are always overfull, zippers straining, scraps of paper and half-inked pens spilling out of the edges. How can I carry just one notebook, just one novel, just one magazine? I want it all, all the time.

Every night, I dump my backpack onto the couch and sift through all the stuff. I gaze longingly at a tiny minimalist purse hanging among a dozen tote bags, the elusive dream of paring down, of needing less, of carrying just one small piece at a time.

Who am I kidding. That’s never been my style.

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  1. I completely relate to this. I somehow fell into a career in the insurance industry and now I just look at all those pieces and wonder what I’m going to do with them. I am envious of those who didn’t paint themselves into a corner with a singular focus. (If you’d asked me, at one time I’d have told you I was going to be a social worker. I graduated with the degree, but ran screaming from that singular focus straight into the arms of insurance. Hence my envy.)

    1. Oh, envy! Such a tricky beast – it has a way of making everyone else’s life choices look so much more appealing. But I hear you! Hopefully we all find a way home to what we want to be doing, through one focus or a million. I think you’ve got some awesome pieces going, by the way (not that you asked). 😉

  2. I wanted to be a marine biologist! I did end up being a biologist, just not a marine biologist. I think it’s great to have lots of interests. Now that I am “retired” I want to do so many things. I am gathering pieces later in life!

  3. Asking “What do you want to be when you grow up?” has to be one of the most irritating questions that adults ask kids. What happened to those others who you knew that so confidently announced their careers as children? And when are we officially “grown up”? There are days I still don’t think I’m there yet.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only who found it irritating (I was half-bracing myself for disagreement with that assertion)! And re: grown up – I’m half hoping that never really happens for me either, though it is nice to have access to some “adult” things by virtue of years accumulated on this planet.

  4. My niece and nephew cornered me last month to ask me how I knew I wanted to write for a living. They were surprised to find out that I had accidentally fallen into my profession. I think I saw them walk away from that conversation a little more sure in their uncertainty to pick a college major.

  5. I can relate too. In college I wasted a year of tuition and time and brain cells in a field I wasn’t interest in. I asked all my friends what they were majoring in, hoping that maybe their career choice might inspire me. And that’s how it happened! I totally went into my new major because my friend wanted to do it, but after I started volunteering that was when I got affirmation on my aspirations.

    Great post!

  6. Big. Fat. Me. Too. I have had enough “careers” to fill my dresser drawers. So I adore this post, and relate to it, too.

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