When we’re children, we tend to have pretty firm ideas about what we’d like to be when we grow up. Astronaut, fireman and veterinarian were pretty popular in my age bracket. I haven’t heard “Business Systems Analyst” or “Customer Service Rep” from the kids I’ve come across as an adult, but who knows what the word is nowadays on the playground.

As we get older, we actually start figuring out what genuinely makes us happy. We hope it’s something someone will pay us for, but a host of other factors usually end up deciding our careers for us, like families and bills. That’s why the world has business systems analysts and customer service reps.

Disclaimer: If you actually aspired to be a business systems analyst or customer service rep as a child, stop reading now. Your life has been wasted and your only hope is reincarnation.

I can’t say I ever genuinely wanted to do any of the things I’ve done for a career. I joined the military mostly to cave in to my parents wishes and every job after that was rigorously evaluated against a two-question filter:

  1. Will they pay me?
  2. Will they hire me?

This foolproof career mechanism has served to place me in some fairly soul-crushing positions. I certainly could have done worse, but also, I certainly could have done better, and that middle of the road-ness mediocrity is potentially the worst place one could find themselves.

It’s like treading water next to a cruise ship. If you stop treading, you’ll sink and die. You tread water because you hope someday you’ll make it on the cruise ship. You can see it right there, maybe you can touch it every once in a while. But there’s no rope, no ladder, no way on board. And eventually, the ship will sail away.

Jesus, that’s a depressing analogy. But let’s stick with it.

Eventually, you’ll need to make your own boat or just accept your watery grave. Maybe you start grabbing some driftwood or remnants of your old, now-crushed boat and manage to tie some together with your belt or a shoelace. You start making a new boat, your own boat. Eventually you find an island filled with people like you who have made their own boats. You share ideas about boat-making, maybe trade parts. You team up with a few of the islanders, take on bigger boat-making projects and sail to other islands, gradually improving your boat over time. Eventually, after years of boat-making, you have a cruise ship, capable of going anywhere and taking anyone you want with you.

I decided recently that I’m tired of treading water and I’m going to do something about it. Are you treading water or are you building a boat?

“We will be shipbuilding
With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls”

Elvis Costello, “Shipbuilding”


~ by willtuck on August 28, 2007.

4 Responses to “Shipbuilding”

  1. An amazing and inspiring manifesto, sir. I am duly impressed, and trying to figure out how to get from clinging to driftwood up to cruiseship.

  2. I must be floating in the same jetsam, Willtuck. I’ve also used roughly the same criteria in weighing potential jobs. The problem for me has been that I simply don’t know what I’m interested in to the degree that I want to spend 8 hours of my day doing it. As such, I’ve long given up on being a workaholic. I just don’t see myself staying at a job for anything beyond what is officially expected of me.

    That said, I’ve recently added a couple of new lines to my job requirements. Assuming that I don’t want to marry my work, I want to at least enjoy it to some degree, and not have it take up extensive amounts of my time. So I’ve added:

    3) Is this a field or subject that I can at least build a legitimate interest in?
    4) Can I leave my work at work?
    5) Is this something local that won’t demand extensive commuting time?

    I have no interest in hating a job and then having to spend an extra 2 hours of my day getting to and from the place I despise.

    It’s not a full path to satisfaction, but it’s a start.

  3. mattbear: Thanks. This post started off as a book review, believe it or not, and sort of took a different course. I’m not usually this hokey, but I’ve just been doing some reflection lately, so it was bound to make it to the site.

    nhak: I know exactly what you’re saying about not knowing what you’re passionate about. They always say, do what you love, and the money will come. But what if you don’t know what you love?

    I guess all you have left is a life of crime. Enjoy!

  4. Wow, that IS a depressing analogy. When I was in elementary school, I don’t remember wanting to become anything in particular. When I was in middle school, I wanted to become a family counselor. In high school, it was a Broadway singer. Adulthood reared it’s ugly head and I too went the path of paying the bills. Today I get to stand up in front of people, guide them and often make them laugh while doing so. You wouldn’t think that a job title of “data administrator” would allow that. As for singing? Thank God for karaoke bars.

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