A Father/Daughter Duo Answers Your Questions: What Career Path Should I Take?
Dear Meghan and her Dad,
Hope you’re both well. I’m a 26-year-old woman with an MA in art history. Before graduating in May of 2013 I had a job lined up, and it sounded like a dream job at the time. So for the last year I’ve been working as a researcher at the art museum in my home city, part-time, no benefits, doing what I care about despite its relative unimportance in the big picture. I had a second (retail) job for several months to make ends meet, and then two months in my boyfriend moved in and I quit the other job, because the two of us combined made enough money, and also because the retail job was exactly what you’d expect it to be like.
Fast forward to now. Still working at the museum, still love it, but realizing that I am treading water there. There’s no next rung on the ladder for me at this museum. I’ve been applying at others, but a) I have gotten no offers and b) because of a change in circumstances, my boyfriend and I were no longer able to make ends meet and wound up living with our (respective) parents. We are (at the time of this email) soon to break up (unless I wuss out).
My question is maybe not the one you’d expect from this back story, although any advice about finding a decent museum job or good male partner would be welcomed. I’m mostly trying to figure out my next step, and it seems I have two (general) choices: 1) I stay in this city and set aside my museum dream for now to find a job, any job, with bennies so that I can actually make and save some money so I can move out of my mom and dad’s but still be able to stay in this city. Or, 2) I can keep sort of paying my dues in the museum field with the hopes that something will open up and I’ll have a real job in a field I love. This will necessitate living with my parents for a while, which is not great for my self-worth although I am very grateful to them for taking me in. It will also probably require moving, maybe several times, and I am pretty sick of uprooting every few years. But, career.
It seems like I have to choose between money and comfort on one hand, or fulfillment and instability. Is that how it seems to you guys? Is one option clearly superior to the other? Ugh, how did I get caught in this arrested development? More importantly, how do I escape it?
— Museum of Treading Water
There are two books on my bedside table that have been fodder for a few interesting conversations with dudes I invite home (that never happens, Dad, don’t worry): The Birth Partner and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. If someone spots them, I smile knowingly and pat my stomach. It’s a fun joke. I’m actually studying to become a doula. When people ask why, I have a difficult time answering: It feels meaningful, I miss the act of buoying up another person, there is ecstasy in connection, I am fascinated by pregnancy and birth, why wouldn’t you want to touch a miracle if given the chance?
But obviously I didn’t grow up wanting to be a doula, and it will likely be little more than a hobby—some people ride bikes, I studiously avoid looking at vaginas while participating in the glory of someone else’s birth. It’s gonna take a while before I’m certified, still longer before I get to solo at a birth, but no matter. I feel good about this decision. I feel— and here it comes—fulfilled.
That’s the word I keep getting hung up on in your letter. Fulfilled. What is fulfillment? What does that entail? There is emotional fulfillment (being loved, loving) physical fulfillment (yoga, mac and cheese) and professional fulfillment (who. the fuck. knows.). I’m 30, and I’m not sure I know anyone who considers herself professionally fulfilled. I genuinely believe professional fulfillment is something only appreciated in retrospect: yes, I did (X) well. I gave some good years to the cause of (X). I had (X) in me, and now (X) is in the world. Professional fulfillment, more than any other kind, seems to me to be a thing that accumulates. And for this reason it is one of the most maddeningly slippery things to obtain.
I have a good job. Really. There are free bananas, and everyone is basically on the side of good, and some days I feel like I contribute something meaningful to the discussion. I have had jobs that more closely lined up with what I believe about the world—jobs in the service of LITERATURE and THEATRE etc.—and most days I came home feeling like testicles because I was undervalued, underutilized, and underpaid. This work, despite not being soulfully fulfilling, is actually far more fulfilling in that I am challenged and well-fed. And then on the weekends I go to doula class, and write small essays, and fulfill myself in other ways. And all in all, it’s a pretty lucky life.
So here are some questions for you: Do you like your job? Are you happy when you get up in the morning? Is it just the endless desire to move forward that makes you feel stuck, or is it really some in-your-bones-dissatisfaction with the work you are doing? Fast forward 50 years, to your retirement party in the basement of the little museum, and your coworkers are bringing you a little cake, and celebrating the work you have done: Would that be enough? (Because that sounds like a lot, in many ways.)
Then again, what’s so great about this job? And what’s so great about this city you live in? What’s really behind your desire to stay, beyond inertia? At 26, I did feel ready to sink myself into a place, and at 30 I’m feeling slightly itchy again (today, at least—ask again tomorrow). If you do decide to get a new job, it likely still won’t be the job you have for life. Whatever city you live in will fade to a shadow city once you find the next place you want to settle. Life, as you have proven by your impending breakup, is anything but static. You could even leave the museum now to gain some valuable skills in another industry and return in a few years, wiser, more capable, more prepared for the next step in your field.
Now, all of that said, if you love your job, if you love your little museum, if you could see yourself being happy there for the rest of your life, why not stay? I think you answered that by writing this letter. Something—and as long as it isn’t just “fear of not being perceived as having advanced successfully in my career according to my age and education level”—is telling you to leave, and that is plenty. That is more than enough.
Meghan’s dad says:
First—apologies for being MIA. My bad—not Meg’s. I was traveling. I went around the world. I’m lucky. It’s not the first time. But it was the first time I’ve been to Bhutan.
Bhutan is an interesting place—a democratic Buddhist monarchy—only one of its kind. They don’t measure their GDP (they should, but that’s a different discussion), but instead measure GNH—Gross National Happiness. There is a national dress that most citizens and all school children wear. For women, it involves a long skirt and a blouse with huge sleeves that roll up. For men, it is essentially a plaid (not sure when the Scottish influence hit the country, or perhaps it was Bhutan influencing 12th century Scottish design) bathrobe with black knee socks and oxfords.
The citizenry seems largely happy—poor (not impoverished), but happy. They don’t care if they have to live with their parents—it is embraced. They don’t look for better jobs in a different museum (there are only a handful of those in any event). They are predominantly Buddhist. It’s more a way of life than a religion. There is a bit of a Forrest Gump quality to it—shit happens. They can’t kill anything, but if someone else takes down a yak, then roast yak for dinner.
They manage, and so can you. You have many more choices (for both employment and wardrobe) than your average happy Bhutanese citizen. So my advice is just get on with it. Buck up and make some decisions here. I’m not you, but if it were me, I’d stick it out in my parents home, help out by cooking a few meals, thank them often (Meg and brother—take note), and work my butt off for a job in a museum with more opportunity for advancement. Moving? Live with it. That is all part of a pursuit of a career. That’s what I did.
But maybe you love your town too much to move. If that is the case, kiss this particularly career goodbye (unless your “town” is New York, L.A., Chicago or some other “town” with a few million people and dozens of museums).
Just get on with it. Make a decision, even if the decision is the status quo. Don’t wallow, unless your decision is to wallow. Making a decision isn’t all that hard. You might hear people say “there are no wrong decisions.” What a load of crap. Decisions come in three flavors—right, wrong, and in-between. The thing about decisions is that until you make one, you won’t know for sure what flavor your decision is, but you also won’t go anywhere until you make the decision. Once you have made it you will then be able to determine whether it is right, wrong or in-between. Then you will have more decisions to make. Go make them.
For more Bhutanese fashion tips, email us at email@example.com.