In today's talk, Alain de Botton discusses how the answer to the question "What do you do?" has come to determine our status, and how the idea of meritocracy influences people to be harder on themselves than they should. We're led to believe that anyone with a good idea and enough ambition can become Bill Gates, that those that are at the top are there because they deserve it, but that coin also has a dark side: that those at the bottom deserve their fate just as much. And while talent and hard work are essential to success, a lot of haphazardness plays into where we end up in life too.
So why didn't my career as an opera singer materialize? First of all, I grew up in a podunk town that could not have competed with yogurt when it comes to culture, in a ridiculously large family of very humble means with parents who were so concerned with making sure I ended up in the right place in the afterlife that they didn't bother preparing me for this life. I never had an opportunity to take voice lessons until I was 22 years old, and then I made a lot of progress during that first year.
Then I got pregnant.
I was married but this was not planned. At the time, I did not feel I had any choice but to have the baby. If you're a regular reader or know me in real life, you know that I adore the child who was the result of this pregnancy, but I can't help but wonder how my life might be different if I could have waited even just a couple of more years. Many mothers say of their children, "I wouldn't trade them for anything!" As much as I love my children, I cannot in full honesty put myself in that category. And though now I can't imagine not having my particular children, logically, there are equally wonderful children who are not here because they are.
Both my babies were c-sections, which wreaks havoc on the muscles used for singing. Both times my voice was adversely affected by hormonal changes during breastfeeding, so there were physical interruptions. And then once you're a mother, your whole life is Interruption. Good luck finding time to practice! Can't do it when they're asleep because they'll wake up. Can't do it when they're awake because they constantly need stuff.
Am I making excuses? Maybe, but I think anyone who has small children will recognize the legitimacy of my difficulties.
I am now attempting to enter the job market in a down economy, after having been out of the workforce for nearly eight years as a student and/or at-home mother. While I had once aspired to be an Artist, I now have the very mundane goal of Making a Living. But this talk was comforting in pointing out that having lost does not make one a Loser, and that we that the right to define for ourselves what constitutes success.
I did the best I could under the circumstances I was dealt, and while I have not ended up where I thought I would, I'm a hell of a lot closer to where I want to be. And that is no small accomplishment.