What You Think You Want

January 20, 2012

Chris Guillebeau, legend of the internets, posted an Academic Confession to his site yesterday that has been clattering around my brain since I first laid eyes on it.

His confession is this: once upon a yester-year, Chris paid Yale seventy-five bucks to consider accepting (much) more of his money. They declined, preferring instead to put a big dent in someone else’s bank account.

The anecdote prompted a knowing smile on my part: I, too, once paid Yale to think about taking my money, and I, too,  was the recipient of a cordial thanks-but-no-thanks letter.

What continues to strike me as odd about my own said experience with Yale is that I didn’t even want to go there — I wanted to go to NYU, which was exactly where I’d wanted to go since the first day I began considering higher education. Yale slipped into the picture purely for the prestige. Which is, well, a little silly.

It took me a long time to get away from validating my life according to something that didn’t relate to my true hopes and goals.

Aye-men. It seems to take many people a long time to get over this, partially because most of us come of age in an educational system that refuses to acknowledge the existence of an alternative (let alone explore what alternatives might look like), and partially because, as Chris points out, the alternative is so difficult to define. Honestly, I was into my twenties before I even started to recognize that hopes and goals existed outside the structure of the traditional academia/career path.

At the time, I really did want to devote years of my life doing things that no one would notice, in hopes of obtaining letters behind my name that no one would care about. As ridiculous as I knew it was, I still wanted it!


Yep, I’m glad I didn’t get what I thought I wanted back then.

Now this is a phenomenon I’ve put considerable thought into in recent months. You see, almost exactly one year ago, I quit my job. Despite enjoying my work, I wasn’t finding it particularly… fulfilling. I wanted to do more for the world. What? I didn’t know. But something good and something big.

Then, for the next ten or so months, I floundered. Big time. I applied to job after job and got no response after no response. My one big interview ultimately led to an apologetic phone call, with the guy on the other end of the line saying, “You were an extremely strong candidate, but we found someone who we think will be just a little better fit for the position.”

I envisioned myself happily settling in to any of the organizations I was asking to devote my career to. I saw myself effecting change. Doing Good. I wanted — I really, thoroughly wanted — to work for a nonprofit committed to education reform.

And… no dice. My bank account and spirits dwindled.

As time went on, I started to question what it means to do Good, what was reasonable to expect out of a job, what a fulfilling life would (or could) look like, and whether I could add value to the world even if my chosen causes weren’t the basis of my professional career.

As more time went on, I felt myself increasingly pulled toward the life and work I’d given up. I found myself valuing doing work I love, and accepting that it was possible to be a positive presence in the world without spending my 9-5s dealing with the bureaucracy of the endeavor.

And in late autumn, I went back to Square One. I returned to audio, with my proverbial tail between my legs. Certain that I was making the right decision, but somewhat chagrined at it all.

The problem here is the correlation of the timeline of this decision with my failure to get into another industry. Did I only choose to go back to sound because I couldn’t get into nonprofit work? Wouldn’t I have been perfectly ecstatic to have been accepted at one of the many organizations I’d begged to take me?

At the time, I wanted to get out of the entertainment industry. I was sure of it. In retrospect, it appears as though I only thought I wanted out. The implications of this are profound: how are we ever to know whether we actually want something, or if we just think we want it?

These continue to be questions I ponder, and I can’t claim to fully be at peace with them.

But… I am happy. Really happy. I’m happy doing my work, I’m much more motivated now than I was a year-and-some-change ago, I’m focusing better and working faster, and see myself in the field long-term. I feel solid and ready to put in the thousands of hours necessary to get really freaking good at what I do.

I look back at the job interview last summer and the many, many applications and essays and organizations, and think… Thank. God. Last year was a little awful to experience, but looking back, I am extraordinarily relieved nothing else worked out.

I thought I knew what I wanted, but I was wrong.

And, like Chris, I am extremely glad I didn’t get what I thought I wanted.

It’s tricky territory, plagued with what-if’s and devil’s advocates and other annoying inconveniences of logic. But Chris’s way with words has brought me a bit closer to accepting and being thankful for what the territory is and what it isn’t, and not worrying so much about what could or would have been.

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