Over the holidays I got to see one of my nephews. He’s a fantasic young man, but visiting with him, especially in my home town, brought me back to when I was his age and trying to work out my place in the world. This post, and hopefully a few others that will follow are both a letter to him, and the voice of an older man attempting to pass on all the wisdom that 48 years of hard knocks and stupid mistakes can provide.
A long time ago, at least as reckoned in internet years, I worked in the software industry. It was an interesting field to make a living in, especially at the small “startups” where I worked. Its a field custom made for people who like to wear a lot of hats, can think on their feet, and can learn quickly. One of the phrases I learned from that experience was substituting the term feature for the term bug. It was used when someone complained about a bug in your software. What you did was deny there was a bug, and instead claimed it was an undocumented feature. The concept is nothing but pure marketing bravado. The phrase was referred to often by everyone in the industry, but I never actually saw it in use. It is an inside joke about the nadir of software marketing finesse, and it is an expression of the deep anxiety that one feels when they know they are selling a less than perfect piece of software.
That being said, the saying does have its uses. And one of those uses is in looking at your future.
You see a lot of people go around with the annoying confidence that comes of knowing what they want to do for a living. It is trifling easy to be angry at such individuals, especially if you are like me, someone who has never known what they wanted to “be”. And it is easy to look at yourself and assume there is something wrong with you for not being like those other “knowers”. After years and years of living as a “not knower,” I now contend that the bug of not knowing is actually a feature; that not knowing is actually better than knowing.
To support this contention, lets us first look at the causes of not knowing.
Not knowing your future avocation does not stem from a lack of ability. Far from it. In fact, not knowing usually stems from an overabundance of ability. It is when you can literally do almost everything and anything that choosing a direction has a consequence. Those poor mundane souls with less IQ and raw ability do not share our quandary. They do not wake up thinking, “Fuck! I wonder if I should be a brain surgeon?” Why? Because they recognize it is not something they will ever be able to do. They understand their choices in life might be between being a auto mechanic and a security guard. Being a brain surgeon is simply not on their list, more importantly neither is the existential angst associated with making that choice. When your choices are fewer, you have a lot less to get wrong. Which can be translated to, when you have less options, you have less to be depressed about. True, you could be an auto mechanic, if that is what makes you happy, but you can also be a brain surgeon, and therein lies the rub. You at least, have the option for both choices, and because of this, have the anxiety that goes with it.
So not knowing is a position of ability, not disability. It carries with it an anxiety based upon a greater risk than most people face; a greater chance of success (and presumably failure) than your less well thought peers. Fortunately for us, we both have been though therapy, and have a decent idea of how to deal with anxiety. Who knew that depression would eventually prepare you for a career? Funny how that works, eh?
But there is another reason why not knowing is a feature, not a bug, and that has to do with a thing called change.
You see, one of the ever constants of the universe is change. It is easy to miss this as a young man (I know I did), or to discount its value, but either position would doing yourself a disservice. By change I mean that we all face several massive changes in our lives, and quite frankly most of them we are not expecting or well prepared for. This is just how life goes. An auto accident, a random chance with cancer, a bit too much alcohol, a casual word misspoken, all of these things (and more, much much more) can, and will, fuck up our lives. Hey, shit happens. The thing is, our avocation is just as open to big change as any other part of our lives. For you, having to change careers would be a pain, maybe even a major inconvenience, but it would not necessarily be crippling. Why? Because you are not “set” on a particular career, you are merely doing the one that came along (and looks best) now. Now imagine the poor slob who, unlike us, knew exactly what he wanted for all of his life, and suddenly discovers he can no longer work in that field. What will he do? Panic, I tell you. That and more. Depression would be the least of his issues, as his self-identity will be taken out from under him. Why? Because he is now facing what you and I have had to deal with for all of our lives; not knowing. Only he will be terribly unprepared for this ordeal as it will be new to him. And “new” is not a nice word to those who have their lives all planed out. In essence, change has brought this man down to our default position (not knowing) and it is terrifying to him.
So who is the strong one here, and who is the weak?
There’s more to my position than just the two arguments above. For instance, there is a very good chance that 20 years from now you will have a thriving career in a field that has not yet been invented. Don’t believe me? This is exactly my position. 20 years ago there were no digital retouchers. Today there are thousands. There was no school, no college, no way of learning what I do for a living, short of trying it out and seeing if you could do it. What engineers call trial and error. And yet, I make very good money at it, and find the job deeply fulfilling. I see no reason why you cannot have a similar experience as my own. Based on the rate of change I see happening today I suspect you have a much great chance than I ever did, of working a job which has not yet been invented.
And when such future jobs become available, who do you think is going to be better prepared to switch to them from the field they are in? A knower or a not knower? Who is going to be less entrenched in their field? Who is going to have less of their identity tied up in their job, and more of their identity tied up in themselves? The answer to all of these is the not knower. In other words, men like us.
So you see, knowing you future doesn’t necessarily give you one.