That age-old question, designed to assign value based on the manner in which you pad your bank account (and not often related to the amount of time you spend plotting murders or adding granny squares to your crochet blanket). For me it used to be easy to answer. The question is so woven into identity, purpose and self that most people have an automatic answer at the ready.
I realized recently that I don’t really know what to say anymore… who the hell am I and what DO I do.
When I worked at a university it was easy (even though it was really more complicated than I let on). I just told people I worked at NSCAD. Most people assumed that meant I taught (in the public mind there is no university profession other than “professor”). And I did. But I was also a technician, fixing cameras and computers, mentoring students, preparing chemicals, maintaining darkroom gear. I was a union VP, too. And I had a freelance writing gig on the side – amongst other things I created copy for bariatric scooter catalogues, horoscopes for dogs, articles about mountain biking and instructions for a dreadlock shampoo company. For real.
Still, oddly enough, I could say, “I work at NSCAD University” and usually that would be enough. Occasionally someone would ask, “Oh, which department? My niece’s nephew’s son-in-law’s brother went there. I think he studied knitting back in the 70s.” Then I would say, “Photography.” They would volunteer, “Oh, cool, I have a Nikon D70.” And that was that.
Then I quit the technician job to start a farm. So that makes me a farmer, right? Well, yes… maybe. I’m a farmer until we get into the details. And then the messy truth comes out.
Sure, the farm threw me into growing food and raising livestock, and selling what I produce … so in those capacities I am a farmer. But I also develop, make and sell goat milk soap and body products, therefore I am a soaper. As well, I create prepared food to sell at market, so that makes me some kind of cook, or something. And I ran for the provincial Green Party in the last election. I guess that means I might be considered a politician. Occasionally I build someone a website, disbud or castrate a goat, or cater a function. I’m still Regular Part Time Faculty at NSCAD. I still write stuff sometimes. What the hell am I? Who knows?!?
Confused? Maybe I’m just confused.
Do I regret that I didn’t go to culinary school when I was choosing where to spend my post-secondary dollars? Yes. And no. My fine art years led me down a different path, but they still got me to where I am now and I learned a heck of a lot of stuff along the way. Problem solving and creativity are skills that hold their own in the field or the kitchen just as well as they do in the studio. Maybe learning the proper way to make Beurre Blanc from dude in a tall white hat would have made me a better cook… or maybe it would have stifled that creativity. Who knows?
Do I wish I could just grow stuff and make all of my income running my fingers through composted manure and dirt? Hell no. It’s pretty damned satisfying, but it’s also a friggin’ hard way to pay the bills. So I’m happy that’s just a very important part of the equation.
Do I want to stop imparting knowledge through teaching and writing. Not really! After all, what’s the sense in knowing stuff if you can’t share it? The exploration of ideas is as interesting to me as the exploration of growing techniques or feeding people. It’s hard to flesh out a meaningful discussion when your daily audience is a bunch of hairy ruminants parading about with their teats on full display. Hardly an intellectual crew, even if they are entertaining.
In a world where job title defines worth, I think it’s important to realize that defining what you are also defines all the things you aren’t. Maybe you’re in between careers. Maybe you don’t know what to do with your life. Maybe you’ve started down a path and realized it wasn’t the right one for you. It doesn’t reduce your value in any way. At the end of the day I think moving forward and feeding your passions is what matters, and it seems I’m not alone. Studies have shown that most people who fall into the Gen X and younger cohorts will have at least a dozen different jobs over the course of their working life. Fewer and fewer folks seem to start a career, settle into the career, and live, breathe, and eat whatever that career may be, longing to to turn 65 so they can stop. It seems most of us are little pinballs bouncing amongst the flippers and bumpers instead of travelling a straight line from the spring-loaded launch to the hole at the bottom of the machine. Isn’t it important that when you do circle that hole and drop put of play, you do so with the satisfaction of having hit as many bumpers and activated as many lights and bonuses as you could along the way?
I may never again be sure who or what I am, but I’m learning, evolving, and happy, (plus managing to pay the bills) so maybe that’s enough. Growth doesn’t happen in a box unless you’re a patio tomato. When someone asks me what I do, I never want to be in a position again where one sentence will suffice. I’d rather say I don’t put all my eggs in one basket, I don’t limit myself, I don’t settle. I do all the things. I problem solve. I create. I share. I fix. I grow. I raise. I make. And I remind myself every day that maybe it’s also ok to answer that question with, “Whatever it takes to make me happy.”