Yesterday, I came across a funny comic about English majors. In the interest of not violating copyright laws, I’m linking to the comic rather than sharing it in this post. I’m glad I found it, since it gave me some food for thought.
I shared the comic I linked to in the first paragraph in this post. A friend of mine from Sweden, who now enjoys a good life in the United States, made the comment that people who are considering a degree in English should reconsider. If one wants a “good paying” job, one should major in hard sciences or business. If I had followed that advice I either would have never been accepted to college, or I never would have graduated. Not everyone has the ability to excel in scientific disciplines. Even if I thought I could stand to take a bunch of math and science classes and would have had the ability to pass them, a life in the sciences probably would have made me miserable. I don’t have the temperament for it, nor do I have the aptitude. I was born to create.
I was an English major. If I had to do college over again, I think I would have majored in music, yet another degree that people tend to think is “useless”. Personally, I admire music majors. I knew a lot of them when I was in college, and they were a very hardworking bunch. They were all taking multiple one credit classes that met three times a week! Music is a valuable skill, though. It brings people joy, and it’s not something everyone can do. I majored in English because I love to write. I always have. But I was never interested in reading novels, analyzing poetry, or teaching. I figured I’d major in English because it was more practical than music is, although I’ve since changed my mind about that notion. I now think music is the more “useful” major.
And yet, my English degree was very beneficial when I went to graduate school. I had good writing skills and was often praised for writing coherently and accurately. I was able to get work as a technical writer, which helped pay for my next two degrees in public health and social work. Public health, in particular, is a field staffed with folks from other countries who may be brilliant at math and science, but not so brilliant at expressing themselves on paper in a way that laypeople can understand. That was where I came into the picture. I took their technical data and translated it into something the average person could read. In that sense, majoring in English wasn’t such a dumb idea after all.
A degree in the humanities can be excellent preparation for further formal study. They work especially well in law, business, or human services. Had I not wound up an “overeducated housewife”, I probably would have fallen into grant writing or research. I doubt I would have done direct practice as a social worker, despite having a master’s degree in social work. But that degree, if one thinks big enough, can be used for other things. The trick is to have the courage to think outside of the box and be good at marketing yourself. You have to believe in yourself first, too. It’s hard to convince others that you can do something if you don’t believe it yourself. Actually, in a weird way, my English degree did help me to attain the lifestyle I have. My husband liked me because he thought I was articulate. Later, he became a fan of my fiction. Would he have been as attracted to me if he hadn’t liked my writing? Maybe… but being able to write sure did help a lot.
My science loving friend has multiple degrees in physics. He makes a good living. He confided to me that he would love to study another area of physics, even if he doesn’t actually want to work in the field that interests him. He says his wife supports his idea of retiring early and going back to school. He has the money to do it. His concerns are looking “foolish” to other people for pursuing yet another degree and upsetting his colleagues at work.
As I read my friend’s response, I couldn’t help but remember my beloved Uncle Brownlee. Man… you want to talk about someone who lived life on his own terms? That was Brownlee. He never earned a college degree. Instead, he simply did what he loved, and he excelled. Looking back on it, I think he had a lot of courage. I also think he died having lived an excellent life.
Brownlee was a born musician, but he was also extremely gifted with his hands. He could build anything, and he had a knack for masonry and electrician work. When I was a child, he managed the Natural Bridge Hotel and Conference Center. He had that job for a very long time. I’m sure there were parts of it that he didn’t enjoy, but his gifts for fixing things probably were immensely helpful. Later, when the hotel was sold to a private company, he took a job working at Virginia Military Institute, where he was in charge of the physical plant. I remember in the 1990s, when VMI went co-ed, my uncle was instrumental in altering the facilities to accommodate women.
In 2000, Laura Fairchild Brodie published a book entitled Breaking Out: VMI and the Coming of Women. My uncle is mentioned in that book because it was up to him to build the women’s bathrooms in the barracks. They couldn’t build them as they would for men. Women have periods, so hygiene is an issue. I remember talking to Brownlee about what he had to do to make the facilities work for women in a way that would satisfy the health code, yet be fair to the men at the school. Brownlee didn’t have college degrees, but he was a master of construction. He and his team figured it out. VMI has been co-ed for over twenty years now… and Brownlee helped! Not bad for a guy who didn’t spend a lot of time in school.
Brownlee was also in a band, and he made money with his music. He was mostly self-taught, but he was really good at what he did. He was able to spend his last years on projects that interested him. When it came time to depart his life, he probably had few regrets. He was not one of those people who said, “Man, I wish I hadn’t spent so much time at the office.” My Uncle Brownlee was very fortunate, but I think he was also determined to live his life his own way. He was able to do it, and be a role model to others.
Now… I’m not a dummy. I know that not everyone is fortunate enough to live like my uncle did. In fact, I’d say that life is becoming more and more about staying on the hamster wheel, which I think is very unfortunate. I don’t think life should only be about working. It’s probably like that, though, because people accept it, and because things have gotten so expensive that constant work is a necessity. There are other factors at play, of course. For instance, it’s not lost on me that I’ve been able to live my life the way I have because I’ve been both very lucky and privileged.
Many people lose sight of the fact that their lives are eventually going to end. Sometimes life ends very suddenly. When it comes time for you to die, it’s unlikely anyone is going to care about the extra time you spent at work. But if you don’t spend that time at work, you run the risk of being edged out of your job. I get that, and the anxiety that comes with it. I wish that fact would change, but it’s going to take changing a lot of hearts and minds to make it happen. People are going to have to overcome their fears and think bigger. Most people don’t have the time or the courage, or they have other people who depend on them. I understand, although I also know that major change requires individuals to change their thinking.
If you are in a position to do something that interests you, I think it’s worthwhile to go for it. You never know where those paths will lead. My friend is fortunate enough to have been successful in his career. He has the time and the money. He just has to make the decision to go for it. In that sense, he’s a very lucky man. As we were discussing this, I was reminded of something else… maybe something he hadn’t even thought of as he was pondering whether or not he’d look “foolish” for pursuing another degree.
Here’s this guy with multiple degrees in physics. He’s had a successful career in robotics, but he wants formal study in a different area of physics, even though he doesn’t necessarily want to have a job in that field. What if he went back to college to study another area that interested him and ended up being an inspiration for someone younger? What if he was in a position to help a young student understand a concept in physics that he or she might not otherwise get? I’ve mentioned this before, and I’ll say it again. Sometimes life’s experiences are about something far beyond the obvious.
Look at my situation. I went to graduate school thinking I’d launch a career in public health, social work, or both. I wound up getting married and writing this blog. I’d always wanted to be a writer anyway, although I will admit it’s hard on my ego that I didn’t turn into “someone”. Maybe some people think what I do is pointless, stupid, vain, or a waste of time and energy. Some people have expressed as much to me. They don’t see the big picture. They haven’t thought outside of the box. They aren’t “going for it”.
I absolutely do use my education. I don’t use it in the way I thought I would, but I do use it, and other people benefit from it. More than one person has thanked me for writing some of the things I write. I’ve had several people tell me that I’ve gotten them to think more or differently about certain things. More than one person has said they have learned something new from my posts. I’ve also heard from people who don’t like what I do, yet they were affected enough to leave a negative comment. In that sense, what I do matters to someone besides myself. So what if my dad or my ex landlady thinks I’m a slovenly person who is wasting her life? What do they know? Have they taken the time to really think about it? And frankly, why should they care if it’s not their life and I’m not costing them money?
I think we should stop wasting time with people who can’t broaden their perspectives and see the big picture. Life isn’t just about your job. The people you work with, more than likely, aren’t going to make decisions based solely on what works best for you. Why should you make decisions that only benefit your employers or co-workers? It’s your life. You don’t have all the time in the world. If you have the opportunity to “go for it”, you might as well give it a try. But I realize that this “advice”, of which I am loathe to give anyone, anyway, might ring hollow to anyone who is struggling to keep the lights on and the plumbing working. Sometimes life takes you on a journey you think will lead somewhere… and you go somewhere very different. It turns out okay. In fact, sometimes it even turns out better than okay. It might be part of the master plan. Or maybe you just took a road less traveled and it made all the difference.