[This is a reworking of a chapter from the first edition of The Leonardo Trait]
[Yes, I’m aware the photo is a starting line. I like it]
Understand that “people” may expect you to choose a life and lie in it. Know, even if no one has never told you before, that you have the right to change your mind. Learn to explain that to the few who have a right to know, and learn to ignore the rest.
My mother, bless her heart, will swear to her dying day this never happened (so please don’t tell her about it), but I know it did happen, because I was there. It happened to me.
A little background: When I was eight, I got a Kodak 110 camera for Christmas, and I was in love.
I don’t know if I’d ever used a camera before, but I’d certainly seen one. My family had one of those old Polaroids where you had to peel off the paper and then, at least in my family, wave the photo around until the image appeared.
But this was my camera. I was a photographer. I was an artiste. It was an awakening for me, one I’ll never forget.
In the summer of my twelfth year, my brother’s girlfriend was in journalism school and suggested I might want to be a photojournalist. Of course I did. I dreamed of nothing else for three solid years. At the library every week I stared at old issues of magazines and dreamed of being a National Geographic staff photographer.
Then I joined Future Teachers of America; I’m still not sure why. But suddenly I was in love again. I was assigned as a student aide to Mr. Felker, the best elementary teacher I’ve ever known. In 1984, he had a computer in his classroom. Now, in 1984, where I lived, computers were like aliens from outer space. We’d heard of them He had one, and knew how to use it. He was a fantastic teacher and a dear man. His students adored him. I wanted to be him.
Now back to my story. During my junior year of high school, I went with my mother to a doctor’s appointment (hers). The doctor asked me what I wanted to do after high school, and I said I wanted to teach English. My mother, whom I love dearly, honestly said, “What she really wants to do is be a photojournalist.” I swear. I remember it like it was 21 years ago.
I’ll come back to this story later, because it’s very important.
Leonardos can take on long-term projects. We write books, raise children, grow roses and go to college.
But most of our projects are short-term. We thrive on change. We thrill at beginnings. We’re energized by starting something new.
I think a lot of this is due to our creativity. We can generate a lot of ideas at the beginning of a project, and we have that “beginner’s mind energy” to work with. It’s very exciting to start something new.
In case you don’t already know, people who are “not like us” hate that short-term thing. Makes them want to pull their hair out. Through their ears.
My son is entering sixth grade. Middle school. His new school has two “majors.” In sixth grade.
In a way this is not so bad; Jack is interested in computers (which is like saying a fish is “interested” in water), and his new school has an information technology curriculum. He can still do just about anything. It’s just the idea that startles me a little.
People will tell you that “part of being an adult is settling down.”
You’ll hear that you’re supposed to know what you want to do after college by your junior year, and then you’re supposed to do it. Forever.
You’ll be informed that life is not a dress rehearsal.
Life is its very own dress rehearsal. Change is why we’re here. What else is there?
You only get one shot. You have to live while you’re alive. And if you could do it over, you’d have even more reason to try new things, not less.
Live your life like it’s a buffet but you only get one trip through. It is. You do.
Let me give you just a few thoughts on finishing what you start.
First, you finish, or continue, a lot of what you start. You’re still alive, you’re in relationships, maybe you have kids, maybe you’re in school, maybe you have a job.
You haven’t quit those things. You’re doing what you started out to do, at least in some form.
And you’re still reading this book.
You finish more than you may get credit for.
Second, you don’t have to use anyone else’s standard for when something is “finished.”
About a year ago, I decided that I really wanted to learn to draw. I had always wanted to learn. So I started teaching myself. I taught myself from books, web sites, and just doing it. I worked really hard for a couple of months.
At the end of that two months I was great at line drawings. I had a very nice toucan hanging on my wall, and had made gifts to a couple of friends, of my drawings. I was “ready” for perspective drawing.
But I was not interested in that kind of drawing, and I really didn’t want to continue with my drawing at that point, so I didn’t. I was done.
There is a secret that unhappy people never learn, and if they did, they wouldn’t want anyone else to learn it.
You have the right to change your mind.
If you really think about it, you’ll realize what a liberating statement that is. If you have the right to do something else, you’re not stuck.
If you realize that “photojournalism” means something very different from what you love to do, you can choose to become a teacher—or an astronaut.
What you have to remember, though, is that you cannot just go around changing your mind and darn the consequences.
You have to take care of your responsibilities. Your real ones, not the ones everyone wants to force on you.
Mainly, you can’t hurt yourself and you can’t intentionally hurt another person. There’s more to it than that, but if you stick with, “First, do no harm,” you’re probably on the right track.
Sidebar: It’s All About Choice
One of my best friends, who’s been around long enough to say things like this, often says, “The worst choices I ever made were when I felt I had no other choice.”
Sometimes people believe that if you have the right to change your mind, you’ll be changing it all the time, you’ll have no stability, and your life will be a wreck.
Maybe it will. Maybe some people act that way.
But I’ve known many, many people for whom knowing they could do something different kept them happy with the way things were.
When you’re choosing to do something, even if it’s not what you’d hoped it would be right now, it’s easier to hang in there and wait for things to get better. If you’re stuck in quicksand, I’m told the best thing to do is wait, not flail. But if you discover the quicksand is actually just water, you can swim.
If I could find the person who first said, “Jack of all trades, master of none,” I would cheerfully strangle him. Or her. I’m an equal opportunity outraged Leonardo.
I know people believe it. I just don’t want you to believe it.
How many things are you really good at? For myself, in five seconds I counted six:
- Web design
- Computer graphics
- Cooking (which I cordially hate, but am great at)
You know the thing about being “master of none” is not true. You’ve always known it. You’ve just never had permission to not believe it. I hereby give you that permission.
Sidebar: Some Jacks of All Trades No One’s Complaining About
By the time you read this, maybe I’ll be famous enough, and Leonardos will be respected enough, that this whole section will be unnecessary. Until then, here are just four names of people who do more than one thing and do it well. I’ll leave the commentary to you:
So now you know all this, but your brother still thinks you’re a dilettante, and he says that like it’s a bad thing. What do you do?
Here’s one solution I used once, very successfully. A friend told me I should settle down and do something with my life.
In response, I sent her a list of my accomplishments over the last twelve months, including writing and completely rewriting (twice) a mystery novel and finding an agent for it. I’m still waiting for a reply to that email.
You may not wish to be that blunt, or you may not be able to, for reasons like trying to keep your job.
Some other good responses are:
“Yeah, I know I don’t finish everything I start. But I start a lot of things. I finish more than most people.”
“Some things are just better left unfinished.”
“Yes, I flit around a lot. Like a butterfly. Life’s sweeter when you can smell all the different flowers.”
Or, if possible, ignore them. Maybe they’ll go away.