As a college professor, I get a lot of students coming into my office to discuss career plans. And if they’re coming to me rather than to a counselor, it’s for one of two reasons: 1) they want to be an archaeologist; or 2) they want to be a fiction writer. And I feel duty-bound to encourage them to do neither.
Seems harsh? It seems harsh to me to, so let me explain. From my vantage point, here in the nearly bankrupt state of California, I see students graduating with little in the way of marketable skills. And I much as I love the idea of college as a time to find yourself, it’s also the best time to find yourself ahead of the competition. Because that’s what all those other students are: the competition. Do what you want in life, but you still have to put beans on the table.
Years ago, as a student, I attended a seminar given by the actor William Windom. He spoke to an audience made up largely of drama students. One student asked him what advice he would give an aspiring actor.
“I’d tell him not to be an actor,” Windom said. “It’s too hard, too cut throat, too demeaning, and there are already too many people who want to be actors. Your chance of success is negligible.”
The student who asked the question was speechless. “I can’t believe you’d say that,” he said. “It’s my dream.”
“Then get over it,” Windom told him. “Look. Everybody wants to be an actor. Most will fail. Some have it in them to really do the work, and take the chance, and be a grunt for years without recognition. Most don’t. So if I can scare you off, then you have no business being an actor in the first place. You’ll never make it. If you shrug off what I just told you, and you start acting anyway, then you might be one of the lucky few. But it’s not my job to encourage you.”
I never forgot that talk.
And that’s what I tell my students. It’s not my job to encourage you to pursue your dream. It’s my job to present you with the cold facts. I love archaeology and I love writing. So does everybody. But these are hard dirty paths. One involves a tireless commitment to drudging toil, hoping day after day that you will come across something of value, and the other involves digging in dirt.
So when I tell my students to go be a nurse instead, or a programmer, I want to see their reaction. Because if they laugh it off, and tell me they don’t care, and that they’re going to be an archaeologist or a fiction writer anyway, I’ll tell them to have a seat. It’s time to make a plan. And I’ll be right there to lend a helping hand.
(a mummified helping hand from the site of El Brujo, Peru)
Because if you’re willing to give up on your dream just because someone told you to, then it’s time to rethink your commitment to that dream. If, on the other hand, you know the odds, and you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and spin the wheel, you might have a shot.
For more written words, please visit www.williamdoonan.com