This I Believe

Christina - Centreville, Virginia
Entered on April 24, 2007

I believe life can be an ongoing brainstorming session. In grade school, my favorite English teacher taught us how to unclog our brains. She wrote a thought on the board (like “Cat”) and circled it with a crenelated cloud. In our notebooks we wrote ideas the word brought to mind (“Dog,” “Litter,” “Rat breath”), each in its own little cloud, connected to the first cloud by a line. And so on, until in the mosaic of cloud-bodied spiders, we found the perfect idea that sparked an essay. But I liked the brainstorming better than choosing a cloud.

So imagine my horror in college when my advisor suggested I choose a career path. She said my intended field of English, Biology, German, and Chinese might be a little broad.

I told her that narrowing in on one subject–the piano, say, or French–is fine, but the goal is achieved to the exclusion of other experiences. Yet if I aim for competency instead of perfection, I can dabble in this and that, and no one field monopolizes my self-image (“So what if that person plays better piano than I do? I can say ‘I love my cats’ in six languages”). I believe a chronic dabbler deserves as much respect as someone who knows from age seven that she wants to be a podiatrist.

But I was too general even for a General Studies degree; the registrar’s office didn’t buy my dabbling theory.

Neither did my roommate Heather. I pointed out that she could hold her own on a softball field, volleyball court, chemistry lab, or art theory discussion group. I told her she was well-rounded; life would not find a surprise angle from which to attack her. But where I saw well-rounded, she saw lumpy. “I just wish,” she said, “that I had one thing I excelled at beyond all else.”

Society is one big registrar’s office, encouraging us to Become, to Arrive, to Produce. But I believe that sampling is as valid as deciding. Some people might say I’m toeing the fine line between belief and rationalization, because I have navigated the worlds of environmental non-profits, journalism, and defense contracting, without achieving stellar status in any of them. But I believe that specialization, like supermodeling, is an artificial social construct that encourages even the most journeysome thirty-somethings I know to chide themselves for not Being Somewhere yet. For example, my cousin Norm can manage a restaurant, build boats, converse about chemical engineering, create tile mosaics, and afford a house in San Diego–yet he berates himself for not having found one particular nexus of being.

I tell Heather and Norm that as chronic explorers, as Renaissance dabblers, they have many points of intersection with the world, and those points make life richer, like having more taste buds makes a meal more intense. It’s ok to keep adding clouds.