Why I still don’t know what I’ll do when I grow up

I’m no longer inspired by people who always knew exactly what they wanted to do.

Well, to clarify: I am inspired by their work, and their passion, and sometimes even by some of their process. But given than I’m 38 and I’m still not entirely sure what I want to do “when I grow up”, I no longer seek out stories that start with “I told my nursery school teacher that I was going to be an actress”.

These stories are attractive, admirable even, but they can leave me feeling hopeless – like I wasted time and won’t even find career or creative satisfaction (even where I know I already have). As someone who has been in full-time education or employment – but for one year of maternity leave – for twenty years of adult life, it’s too late for me to start drawing every day at the age of five, or starring in ballet shows from the age of seven. But it’s more than that: it’s that I simply don’t have the kind of singular attention span that makes me want to do just one thing – and even if I am doing that one thing, to do it all on one subject, or in one way.

I am, most often, a writer and I guess I too could say I always have been. But the type of writing I enjoy doing ebbs and flows, both for myself and for the jobs in which I’ve specialised in everything from websites to social media to ads to packaging to press releases to articles… As part of my writing process I’m a habitual doodler, and I’ve done a charity art challenge and a drawing course and am, in fact, shortly due to launch a business for which I’ve designed my own pins. I wear one virtually every day, you see, as part of my interest in style, which also leads me to get passionately vocal about plus size fashion. I look forward to having fun with looks well into my imminent forties and beyond and I enjoy dressing to match the films I’m watching at the London Film Festival – because I’m also really into cinema. That’s when I can take a break from the TV show I’m currently obsessed with, after I’ve put down the book I was glued to on my commute. A couple of times a month, I detour that commute to a place where I can write for the evening as I simultaneously work on my blog, a novel draft, another novel draft and a television series idea. Sometimes I talk about these ideas, particularly with the friend I want to launch a podcast with, or the pal with whom I’m planning an art installation to do with the use of voice – while I also mull over getting together samples to do audiobook narration. So you can see why now I struggle to draw any kind of line between an interest and something that might actually become a source of income and job satisfaction – and why ‘writer’ is both necessary and insufficient. 

The saying goes that a jack of all trades is master of none. In response, I call on my twenty years of professional copywriting experience across multiple sectors to say, as articulately as I can: bollocks. In this digital age, to be a generalist is to be a perfectly normal – even necessary – part of the professional landscape, and most of us are actually masters of (at least) one of our skills. We just can’t bear the thought of being forced into a knowledge cul-de-sac. I wouldn’t call myself a polymath, because I don’t have delusions of grandeur – but neither am I a pain in the ass (at least, not a massive pain). I am, instead, quietly useful.

Of course, certain jobs simply need specialism that’s laser-focussed. But in this modern world, a multi-faceted team can and should include a few multi-talented – or at least widely curious – individuals. I’ve often observed that generalists make good managers of people, with an interest and empathy that extends across multiple disciplines. If we sometimes need a firm brief to keep us on track and stop us getting distracted, we’re also great at getting just the right collaborative spirit going. We’re a gift to startups and charities, where for various reasons the need for people who can roll up their sleeves and do the job in front of them – even if they haven’t done exactly that before – is always at the forefront. And many of us end up – or dream of ending up – as some form of freelancer: a contractor, consultant, business owner – dare I say Mumboss? Because however much we second-guess ourselves, we can’t fathom ever being being boxed in by the limits of a single role.

And as it turns out, even someone who is resolutely focussed on a particular path can still embrace the way of the generalist. Recently, I was lucky enough to attend a talk by film director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, Suspiria). Interestingly, he is one of those people who knew in his infancy that cinema, and specifically being a director, was his calling. But he’s hardly taken a straightforward career path. He’s made short films, documentaries and features, cutting back and forth between them depending on what the project – and his interest – demanded. Guadagnino has found his medium and stuck to it – but what he’s done with that varies tremendously. He talked about being boring, and telling the same stories (in the preoccupied way that storytellers do frequently circle the drain of our own neuroses), but in fact he’s never done it the same way twice.

I’ve finally got used the idea that, unlike some of the people I admire, I’m never going to have a simple answer to what I do, or what I want to do. It’s going to be a moving dot on the horizon, and I won’t ever have a threshold I can cross that will allow me to say “I achieved my dream”. That can sound frightening; without a carrot, what is the stick? Well, to me the more frightening question is: what happens when I’ve eaten the carrot? There’s a reason Tennyson had a shattered Odysseus – I’m too Greek to call him by his Roman name – yearning for those seas where he was literally tossed to the winds, even after spending twenty years trying to get home.

I used to think this meant I was never going to grow up, that I was stuck in an immature loop of uncertainty, because I needed to somehow mentally put my foot down. But I’m done trying to pull a Brexit on my life choices. I will plan only for the essentials – the financial future, the need to provide for my family. And to do so I’ll keep myself connected to all the possibilities out there – even alien and confusing ones – rather than isolating myself from the bigger picture. Nothing feels quite like taking back control than admitting there is no control to take back.

So I don’t need a goal for drive, and I don’t need permission to call myself the things I am doing; without a published book or a regular column I am, and always will be, a writer, among other things.  When I remember how many opportunities I’ve been able to grasp by virtue of doing things I was passionate about and interested in without the aim of extracting anything specific from them… it seems ridiculous to put a limit on the shape of my dreams. Perhaps this means I’ll never achieve the kind of linear success in a particular field that other people admire – and if so, so be it. In the end, I have to live with myself the longest, and I’ll never be happy beating myself up to hit arbitrary targets.

Here’s to the generalists: may we never make up our minds – and therefore never close them.

 

7 Comments

  1. “In this digital age, to be a generalist is to be a perfectly normal – even necessary – part of the professional landscape, and most of us are actually masters of (at least) one of our skills.”

    Quite so.

    But, I don’t like the term “generalist.” I think we have to find another word, because this one diminishes what you do, to my mind. You’re right that one needs more than, say, a great writing voice, a knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, and a willingness to sit in a chair for hours on end, in order to be a writer. One needs to be a communicator, and a passionate one at that.

    I once did a talk at Google headquarters for a group of teenage girls who were apps designers. I asked them, “Before I was introduced, had you ever heard my name?” The only one who raised her hand was the organizer who’d invited me to speak in the first place. Then I asked, “Have you heard of Mark Twain?” and they all said “yes.” Back when Mark Twain was writing, the publishing industry was a whole different kettle. But the reason I was asked to speak at Google, a writer who still strives to be a household name in every household, is because I am a ‘generalist’ too. many midlist writers who have more published works available than I have, whose work is wonderful, have not yet learned to be “generalists,” and that’s why they struggle. Today, in order for a writer to build a platform, any artist has to be skilled at blogging, social media, online writing. She has to be willing to present her work in thought-provoking, creative, yet unique formats. She has to know how to make sure the world can access that work. You can’t post on a blog and expect it to be successful without knowing how SEO works, or tags, or metadata. All of this requires (emphasis there) a “generalist’s” attitude. If someone who wants to be a filmmaker, or an artist, or a writer today tells me, “I just want to be left alone to CREATE,” I know that person’s work will never see the light of day. And that’s FINE, if that’s what you want. But it is certainly not in any way better than someone who dabbles and explores. Because it’s that latter person who has the creative energy that will make her work accessible to those she wishes will see it, when her time comes.

    Reply

    1. Thank you so much for this. I don’t necessarily see ‘generalist’ as an underplay, but I do definitely agree with your point that the world has changed the goal posts in terms of defining what sits under a particular role’s umbrella. In my case I approach writing with the multi-directional curiosity I do everything else, which will hopefully stand me in good stead in terms of self-publicising (always assuming I can buckle down enough to finish any damn thing!). But I also sometimes park writing altogether and take a wander off down other artistic paths – like pin design – that bring me joy, and have potential for also being gainful employment (ish, anyway). And my day job has never actually had ‘copywriter’ in the title, and is technically a marketing role – but yet involves a good deal of copywriting, now more than ever. So I think that was why I couldn’t really think of a term that was non-judgmentally descriptive of all these approaches. I’m open to suggestions, though! And I always appreciate your thoughtful outlook and the time you take to chew on the issues. x

      Reply

  2. This : “may we never make up our minds – and therefore never close them” – is exactly what I think. It reminds me of the Samuel Johnson saying “when a man (or woman!) is tired of London, s/he is tired of life”. I just think that life is supposed to be an adventure and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. And I’m way ahead of you, by about thirty years, so you’ve no need to fret! Yet.

    Reply

    1. An inspiration! I don’t think I could stand myself if I stopped wanting a little bit of novelty mixed in with my familiarity. 🙂 x

      Reply

  3. P.S. malmonroe = Diane’s Mum, btw. It’s my old WordPress account username. I hate it when people post anonymously! xx

    Reply

  4. This speaks so loudly to me. There are so many varied things I still want to do and succeed at, the idea of having to narrow to one just doesn’t make sense. I want to learn and grow and try and do – so many things interest me and excite me so why on earth wouldn’t I want to explore them?

    Reply

    1. Right?! I’m so glad I’m not the only one who feels this – I thought I might not be. I can’t stand the clang of doors shutting but I love the click of them opening… x

      Reply

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