I have had to dramatically decrease the scope of my ambitions.
During my LEGO-strewn childhood, my mother was quick to tell me that I had what she called “good spatial awareness” and that I could, if I wanted to, pursue a career in architecture. I remember being surrounded by notebooks full of graph paper and pencils in constant need of sharpening, sketching out schematics for spaceships from Star Wars and some of my own design. But when when I took to the dull parallelisms and straight lines of homes of office buildings, my sketches became stilted and hollow and wholly uninspired.
And my dad reminded me gently that my less-than-impressive grades in mathematics were unbecoming of an architect. He didn’t do this to discourage me from my dreams; quite the opposite. But I have no doubt I caused him at least a flicker of disappointment; he himself is gifted with a knowledge of the absolutes of numbers and their function, having worked as an engineer and programmer for almost as long as I have been alive. He was never a terribly patient teacher but he was knowledgeable, and helped me limp through my math classes. I remember him buying me a set of very expensive student encyclopedias halfway through middle school, and he and I opened them together exactly once: to look up the procedure by which one might – by hand – find the square root of a given number. The method taught by my math teacher had been reproduced imperfectly in my notebook, and so my father and I set out to find an alternative method. We were successful, and I turned in the assignment and received a failing grade. My toad-like math teacher, Mr. Barton (who not even tenure could protect when he backhanded a student), suggested that I pay closer attention to his lessons in the future; alternative methods at reaching the same goal were not permitted. Imagine if all of life worked that way.
So any tiny, withered desire I had to perform well in mathematics got the remaining life crushed out of it and I decided to muddle through with only minimal effort. But while I floundered at math, I flourished in my studies of reading and writing. As early as second grade, teachers were commending me on my vivid and energetic writing voice. My family took a vacation to the Bahamas when I was about this age that I only vaguely remember now, but I do remember coming back and presenting my teacher with journal entries describing my family’s adventures. She thought they were works of fiction; my recollection of a coconut milk vendor trolling the beaches was too perfectly rendered to have been the product of memory, and didn’t have the tell-tale stiltedness of a child’s journal entry. She was the first to tell my mother that I had a possible future in writing.
The second was my fourth grade teacher. I don’t remember what singular thing I did to impress her, but whatever she said to my mom, it wasn’t soon after that Mom’s ambitions of my becoming an architect were replaced by dreams of being a Bestseller’s Mother. I think she’d probably already had the bumper sticker made up. And so after high school I went off to college to pursue a BA in writing. Hindsight tells me it was a fool’s errand on some level, but recent empirical data claims that liberal arts majors are in demand now more than ever. There’s evidence for both pronouncements. I suppose part of the problem is that it’s a career choice that doesn’t really have an endgame in mind; business students, in my experience, have at least an imperfect picture of what they’ll be doing after they graduate. “Writer,” on the other hand, is not a word fit for printing on a business card – it is not a word that instills confidence, however attractive it might be as a self-title.
Four years came and went. I became a writer, I guess. Or began the process of becoming one. I realized how much I didn’t know before I got to college. I learned the craft and perhaps more importantly, I learned about myself. I re-learned myself. I think it’s probably a cliché by now that young men and women go to college to found out who they are. This is absolutely, terribly true; I am a different person – a better person for the time I spent there; I made lasting friends and I unlearned certain truths about the world and about myself and I discovered confidence for probably the very first time in my life and as good as things were at the time, I learned the skills necessary to avoid total implosion when things inevitably got a little less great in the quickly approaching future.
Can these things be accomplished without going to college? I have no doubt that they can be. It’s a truth of our modern world that college students have more doors open to them than do people who didn’t go to college. But this is not to say that the latter are any less valuable as human beings. We are not our collections of skills.
I’ve been out of college for over a year now, and I know exactly two people from my circle of friends who have found a job related to their field of study. Several others have taken jobs best described as the very best of very limited options, and others have chosen to further their education and defer their entry into the real world.
Physics teaches us that potential energy refers to an object’s position relative to a reference point; an object’s potential energy changes according to its physical location. A book resting on the floor, for example, has a great deal less potential energy than does one placed high up on a table. I look around most days and think that, while my current situation isn’t ideal, I do at least have a moderate amount of stored potential.
My brother lives by a similar credo; he attended business classes at the local community college and teaches himself musical theory in his spare time. He’d rather be studying music at Berklee, but until then he’s working to maximize his own stored potential.
For right now, I’m working in an Amazon.com warehouse ten minutes from my house. It isn’t remotely what I expected to be doing a year after I graduated, but as I said before, I never did have a very solid plan. I was recently granted a conversion from a temp to a full-time Amazon associate, which brought with it a (very) modest raise, benefits, and a reasonably secure future with the company. In the couple of months since I started, I’ve managed to distinguish myself in ways that, viewed against the backdrop of the universe’s many galaxies and vast untamable wonders, mean precisely nothing. I have been frequently recognized for the speed and accuracy with which I move boxes from one part of the warehouse to another. My life over the last couple months has been defined by the wait between computer print-outs telling me that I’m meeting or exceeding Amazon’s expectations for productivity. I have a ream of these at home.These are my accomplishments. This is the place from which I cultivate my pride, and measure my ambition.
And maybe the worst of this is the fact that it wasn’t a gradual realization; it hasn’t been a process that I could watch and be aware of and have some measure of control over. No, it was quite sudden indeed. A little bit like an obese man waking up one morning and looking at himself in the mirror and realizing for the very first time that he hasn’t seen his penis in five years.
My ambition is that penis.
I am alone with my thoughts much of the time at work, so it’s easy to let the phrase So this is what my life is? enter my mind. But then I mentally kick my own ass and realize that the constituent parts of my life are so miraculously and completely perfect that I have to remind myself daily, when thoughts like these creep into my head, that I am one of the luckiest people on planet earth. I have a loving family and a roof over my head that I don’t have to share with strangers, running water, clothes to wear, food to eat, friends, a well-rounded skill set, and I’m reasonably attractive and male and white. There isn’t any single thing about my life that somebody, somewhere, wouldn’t murder to have for themselves.
I might be living for small pats on the back when I perform certain menial tasks well, but the truth is that they wouldn’t be thanking me for my quality work if even these stupid, mind-numbing tasks could be done well by just anyone. There is pride to be found here, even in distinguishing myself among other non-skilled workers; there is something worthy of ambition here. Because if I’ve learned anything at all in the last couple of years, it’s that no task is too small to bring the whole of my human essence to bear on it. Nothing is worth doing to anything less than the best of my ability. And reminding myself of this fact is what it takes to remember that what I am is not all that I ever have to be.
Switch to our mobile site