The Boy has been home for a few days, partly to see us and partly to visit his girlfriend in New York City. But it has given us a chance to talk with each other, and with some knowledgeable family friends, about his career direction.
Two of the friends we’ve consulted are well-acquainted with the world of public health. One is a lobbyist who focuses on healthcare issues; the other has an MPH degree and has worked in various roles in the field for years. TB – who made me proud with the way he acquitted himself on the calls — asked each of them about their own career paths. Each discussed the quirky path she had taken, neither of which was remotely duplicable. Afterwards, he asked me what to do with that.
I remembered a line I’ve seen attributed to Max Weber: you can’t plan accidents, but you can make yourself accident-prone. Both women described happy accidents along the way that helped them get where they are; in both cases, though, those accidents were made possible by being in the thick of the action. They put themselves into situations where they were likely to (and did) meet people who could open doors for them. As I put it to TB, if you want to be accident-prone, you should go where accidents happen. Go where the action is.
He saw the point, but I could also see him struggle with it a bit. I couldn’t blame him. From kindergarten onward, his path has been linear and (mostly) planned. To the extent that there have been detours, they’ve been minor, and they never really called the larger plan into question. Now, he’s being asked to consider stepping off a linear path and jumping into the relative unknown. That’s an unaccustomed move.
I assured him that the early twenties are a great time to take risks. He doesn’t have kids, he’s healthy, and he’s used to living in crowded and modest surroundings. It’s much easier to take a flyer on something at 22 than at 32, let alone 42. Now that the law allows young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance to age 26, he has a window of a few years during which he doesn’t have to worry about that.
My version of that – at 22, actually – was spending a summer in Berkeley just because I wanted to see California. It was the summer after my first year of grad school. I had managed to save a little, and this was back when you could buy unused plane tickets from other people. I stayed with a friend for a few days, then found a summer sublet in a sketchy part of town and a job that paid just enough to let me tread water for a couple of months. It had literally nothing to do with my career path, but it did my soul good. As it happened, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a very long interview in a Sunday edition that summer with someone I wound up including, years later, in my dissertation. (This was years before you could read out-of-town papers online.) I can describe where I was sitting as I read it, alternately captivated and confused. That was an accident, but a happy one. The trip made no purposive sense, but I don’t regret it at all.
TB still has his final year of college to go, so he has time to decide what he wants to do next. I don’t know yet what that will be — neither does he – but I hope he makes the choice out of desire, rather than by default. And I owe a huge thanks to the friends who’ve helped him see that there’s more than one path, and some of them are twistier than others.