Before polymathy pt I : Callings are for priests and white rappers, right?

This is the first part of a (probably) 2-post essay on life, whether it happens to you

while you’re busy making other plans and if so whether your plans should have outlined contingencies dealing with that eventuality, perhaps using some kind of worm-hole embedded in the cover-sheet.

I went to a very driven school, and at an early age it drilled into us that distinction could and should be ours. Pragmatic and results orientated, their advice was more “reach for the cash” than “reach for the stars”, with the expectations that we should firstly excel in our exam results, then translate that into real capital, status and regard. This unswerving emphasis was tempered by my family; my mum firmly believed that money did not buy you happiness, and that success in whatever domain made us happy was the right kind of success. Once you found your special purpose you were set.

Despite this rosier formulation (and I thank god I had the mother I did) I spent a large part of my school life, and beyond, filled with misgivings about my future. The thing was, I couldn’t find a special purpose. I didn’t have one thing I was good at, or one thing I loved. There was no use in waiting for one to reveal itself either: my problem was not a dearth of options but an excess leaving me with a paradox of choice.

I want to be clear here. I am not saying I was great at everything. Clearly untrue – at school I sucked at languages (embarrassing when you are mixed race from an obstensibly bilingual background), found visual art totally beyond me and was generally clumsy. I’m also not suggesting that the things I was good at I was great at. My ‘problem’ was being pretty good at a number of things, enjoying them all in various ways, without a particular calling to invest myself in one at the expense of the others. This was a pragmatic and a principled aversion. On the one hand, I couldn’t face doing maths for three continual years and then throw the rest of my life into it. On the other, I didn’t see why anyone should have to do so. Why is it such a good thing to specialize, I wondered- why throw away the nuanced perpective afforded by a wider background?

I call it a problem, and problem it is, in many senses. We all know that from school onwards we need to be showing visible and directional progress if we have a hope of doing anything in our lives. I remember being warned before starting my PhD that if I was not to continue in academia, possessing it would actually be a hindrance as it suggests a lack of direction. Doing something productive isn’t good enough – it needs to be the exact right thing. I think you can see a sense of this in the 1/4 life crisis that’s being documented over the last 3-4 years; while some of this is down to free-riding and a lot more to the unattractive shape of the job market (telemarketing or charity street team representing ‘opportunity’ in the 21st C), I’m certain that people who like me are without a calling find themselves firmly on the pointy bits of a dilemma of choice. And stay there.

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