When I was a kid, I had a toy office set. It came with a “while you were out” pad, a notebook, pens, a nameplate, some folders, and while playing with it, I would transport myself to an important job in a glassy corporate building in the city.
Daydreaming about office work may not have been typical second grade behavior, but to me the school day was akin to how people trapped in their jobs view office work, a monotony of obligations that seem profoundly insignificant: math class, gym kickball, cliques, and so on.
It made sense, then, that I looked forward once a year to accompanying my dad, an anesthesiologist, to the hospital where he worked. There, I was allowed to stand in the corner of the operating room watching as C-sections, colonoscopies, and similarly uncomfortable procedures were performed on patients who were too sedated to care about my presence.
From this experience, I decided it would be cool to practice medicine. I also associated being a doctor with the privilege of walking around in baggy scrubs, eating frozen yogurt and pizza from the hospital cafeteria, watching TV in the call room, and playing a lot of unsupervised computer mah-jongg.
At some point, the hospital visits lost their thrill. The last time I went, my dad was working at a suburban hospital. The cafeteria food wasn’t as good as I remembered. The soup I ordered was bland, with gummy okra that I can taste to this day. What’s more, I could sense the reality of the situation: that no one in that nearly empty cafeteria wanted to be in a hospital on a Saturday. To convince myself that there were some privileges to it all, I snuck into the doctor’s lounge and chugged instant cappuccino.
By my teens, I had decided to be a lawyer after becoming incredibly interested in the workings of the U.S. Supreme Court. I began fantasizing (yes, fantasize is the right word) about landing one of the hardest jobs to get in America: a clerkship at the Supreme Court, if possible for Justice David Souter, who was my favorite of the nine judges.
My illusions about law were eventually chipped away as well. Practicing, I discovered, usually meant -- at least during one’s early years at a prestigious corporate law firm -- hours of flipping through a client’s emails on the computer (“document review”) and being available to drop everything and work at any time of the day or night. I was sure there were some rewards that came with the work, but they were the kind of rewards that, as I got older, I cared about less.
During college, I viewed earning a PhD in History as my true calling. However, I was forced before graduation to question whether I would still feel the call after eight years of pouring my heart (or whatever that organ had become) out into an obscure subject, only to then be spit out into a job market that is probably best described as “dismal.”
Having eliminated most of my potential career paths, but with a firm conviction that I really liked writing, I eventually decided to go to journalism school. “Liking writing” is not the best reason to go to journalism school.
However, it was a good experience, even though (or perhaps because) I did not excel the way I once had in high school and college academics.
I characteristically had a few illusions about the lifestyle of a journalist, seeing it as an opportunity to chronicle the human experience like no other job can. The reality I found, like millions of others before me, is a little less romantic: a never-ending community board meeting, a crime scene where no one wants to talk to you, or a cubicle re-writing press releases.
Today I am fortunate to have a job where I am paid to learn new things. Yet like many people, it is not a job I imagined myself doing -- or even knew existed -- when I was 8 or 13 or 17.
And I am sometimes mournful of my now well-honed ability to reason myself out of various careers. Meanwhile, any conviction I had about what I want to do has faded.
Like many before me, I believed in and was propelled by the myth that a job can always be a dream. Even what we think of as dream jobs -- actor, president, food critic -- are work. And it is work that cannot always be fueled by passion alone. There are many factors fueling us to work: a paycheck, a sense of obligation, because we will get in trouble if we do not. Sometimes we need to draw from less glamorous reasons when the passion is not there in order to re-discover it.
So, now that I have reconciled with my younger self for never having clerked for Justice Souter, I can say that I have at least not given up on daydreaming. The dreams now have to do with capturing those things I didn’t appreciate when I was younger, like the joy of being outside on a warm day or learning something that I might have ignored in high school chemistry. As for work, well, as none other than Abraham Lincoln said, “My father taught me to work; he did not teach me to love it.”