As a boy, I had the usual career goals: fireman, policeman, and—for the longest time—airline pilot. All that faded quickly enough, but unlike most young people, I never really came up with an alternative plan. As a young teenager, whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “retired.” It was good for a laugh, but most people didn’t realize that I was serious. I really did want to skip midlife and head straight to the pension.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t lazy, nor did I lack ambition. I had lots of interests, lots of passions, many dreams and plans. And that was the problem. I didn’t want to do just one thing, or be just one kind of person. I wanted to do a little bit of everything: paint, read, travel, build interesting things out of wood, plant a garden, study nature, learn a foreign language, write.
Individually, each interest could lead to a job. I could be a horticulturalist, since I liked to garden. I could be a naturalist, since I liked to be outside. But I didn’t want to pick one activity to the exclusion of all others. Instead, I wanted to dabble in all of my interests. And since full-time dabbling is the allowable pass-time of the retired, I decided that I wanted to be old.
Later, as young man, I modified my career aspirations slightly. After studying European history I wanted to be a renaissance man—someone who had the wealth and resources needed to simply pursue my multiple passions, wherever they might lead. I also wanted to live in an era when there was room for people to make a name for themselves in many different disciplines. Michelangelo could be an inventor and a great artist; Benjamin Franklin could be a diplomat, printer, and scientist. Thomas Jefferson—one of my early heroes—was a brilliant writer and a gifted architect. All three men were allowed to cross boundaries of knowledge with impunity and make contributions to each. I could see myself as their contemporary, pottering about my English manor—inspecting interesting horticultural specimens in the morning, practicing the violin in the afternoon, writing a treatise on democracy by candlelight.
But since “renaissance man” is not a recognized occupation in the twenty-first century, I played by the rules, earned a series of university degrees and established a respectable place in society as a writer. It’s not a bad way to make a living. I often worry about finding enough work, but I relish the autonomy. I can travel when I please and work when it’s most convenient. Since I don’t commute, attend departmental meetings, or engage in idle chatter in hallways, I work more efficiently and have more free time.
But, to the detriment of my emotional health, I never really abandoned my preference for dabbling. I’m 45 years old—fully credentialed, completed settled, utterly respectable in nearly every way—and I still believe in the value of fun, leisure and creative exploration. I don’t mean lying around eating bon-bons and watching the Guiding Light. I’m talking about traveling the world with my children, learning to paint in oils, hiking the Appalachian Trail, becoming something more than a marginally competent musician—things that, in their own way, require hard work and discipline. I could do this happily and productively for the rest of my life.
But I can hardly admit to these fantasies without appearing like an eccentric or aspiring dilettante. Those of us in the American middle class (and most Americans believe they are middle class) are conditioned to think of themselves first and foremost as workers. Employment is the coin of the realm; the more we work and the more we appear to suffer because of it, the more virtuous we appear.
This fixation with employment is understandable if we were only worried about the practical need to earn a living. But modern society has given work a much higher and more symbolic role. Jobs (which are more commonly called “careers”) are not only sources of necessary income, but all-encompassing sources of personal identity: “I am a doctor;” “I am a teacher.” People don’t do work, they are work. It defines our place in society. It defines us. A person without a career is almost without an identity.
Worse still, careerism assumes that most people can be only one thing—a scientist or an artist; an astronaut or a poet. There is no room for multiple identities. In fact, we are conditioned to look at people who cross boundaries with suspicion. Hyphenated identities are flaky. There is some tolerance for midlife career changes, but they are often pursued under duress (the factory job goes away, for example), and are allowed only after new credentials are earned. We are “retrained” (probably in computers) and placed on a new track, just as limiting and exclusive as the one before.
In a career-oriented society, uncompensated passions and talents are given the slightly dismissive label of “hobbies.” They are allowed, but treated like a piece of parsley on a plate served with the dinner entree —a colorful garnish that livens the presentation, but doesn’t add anything to the main course and is, in the end, disposable. In this context, my boat is assumed to be of no great importance to my happiness or my identity. It is simply how I fill time when I run out of work.
Some people feel completely fulfilled by their jobs. My father, I think, was one of these lucky few. He lived a rich and full life within the boundaries of his profession and believed with total certainty that he was doing something of great importance. With this role model, I grew up feeling that there was something wrong with me for not feeling utterly fulfilled by my career, for not being absolutely sure that I was making the world a better place. I wondered why the son of a university chancellor and presidential appointee wanted to knock off early on a Friday afternoon to work in the garden. Was my DNA a few molecules short? I knew how to play the part of the committed professional, but I always felt like a fraud.
But I think it’s also safe to say that most people have dreams that don’t fit into their workaday lives. David Heineman, a fellow Pocket Cruiser builder, told me recently that he wished he could live at least one hundred different lives simultaneously. One would be a painter, one would be a musician, another would build boats. What a relief it was to hear someone else say, almost word for word, what I have said for years.
I don’t know why we maintain the fiction of careerism. Instead of looking at the narrowness of our economic lives and calling a spade a spade, we only redouble our efforts to secure happiness by finding a new and better career. If we are unhappy, we’re told it’s only because we’re in the wrong profession. But I wonder if we might be happier if we simply admit that a career is, in the end, just a job and that while jobs can be (and should be) rewarding and useful, they need not define who we are. Plenty of societies, both past and present, understand this fact well enough and live happier and richer lives as a result.
Like most people, I need to work and, quite frankly, I’ll probably need to work for many years to come. But that doesn’t mean that I am obligated to work more than necessary or simply think of myself as “a worker.” Maybe I can’t be a true renaissance man, but I can realize that work pursued for pleasure is no less important or meaningful than work completed for money. At this moment, my boat is as important to me as anything I do in my office. And a good day is when I not only spend some time “earning a living” but also have the free time to glue some stringers, play my guitar, hang out with my kids, talk with my wife, and read a good book. In other words, be a complete person.