You know those new patient forms at doctors’ offices? The big stapled piles of paper that someone shoves at you through the check-in window?
Well, I was filling one out the other day.
I grabbed a seat and took a pen from my bag, choosing to forgo the pen chained to the clipboard because, ew-ick-germs. In smooth black ink, I barreled through the typical questions with ease: name, address, date of birth, emergency contact. This wasn’t my first waiting room rodeo, I was efficient and prepared.
I paused, however, when I came to a section of boxes in which I was instructed to supply my job title, company, and “profession”.
Even before working for myself, boxes like this have always made me anxious.
There’s only some much space, and there is so much identity to communicate. Perhaps those with clear-cut vocations like “doctor,” or “lawyer,” or “teacher” can fill in these questions without a second thought. Maybe for some, this act of summarizing one’s profession isn’t cause for deep self-reflection. I think I’ve just never been easily defined.
When You’re Little, It’s Okay to Dabble
When I was little, I wanted to be a dental-hygienist-who-was-also-a-reporter-who-went-on-expeditions-as-a-paleontologist-and-also-starred-in-a-Broadway-show. Obviously. I went to theater camp and science camp. I recorded radio shows in my bedroom, then imagined up an entire feast made of sticks and pinecones at the park. I explored everything and was lucky to have parents who encouraged such behavior. I’ve found that people support this sort of sprawling creativity much more readily in children than in adults. My youth afforded me endless possibilities and an open-book future.
Cool Kids, Jocks, and Theater Nerds
As a high school student, my desire to explore persisted. I was on the swim team (most team spirit!) and was also a member of our school’s show choir (jazz hands). Since our high school didn’t have a pool, we bussed to a local community college for daily swim practice. The challenge was that my show choir rehearsals took place back at the high school directly after swim practice ended. I’d race off of the bus with wet hair, throw on my character shoes, and catapult onto the auditorium stage.
I could sense that both groups of friends resented my juggling act. The artsy kids typically just did arts activities, and the athletic kids usually stuck to sports. I ended up straddling two worlds—an approach that is highly at odds with the “all in” mentality of most high school cohorts. It would have been far safer and simpler to decide “I am an athlete” (or, let’s face it, a theater nerd) and stick to that clearly defined identity. Yet, I couldn’t help but have divergent interests and curiosities.
Honestly, Why Do We Have Majors, Anyway?
When I think about the majors I “tried on” in college—theater, English, communications, pre-law, and elementary education—I notice a pattern that didn’t occur to me at the time. Each has an inherent broadness.
With an English degree, I could go on to write fiction, to teach, to work in publishing. Communications opened up even more possibilities, ranging from project management to marketing to broadcasting. Careers in law or teaching offered built-in variety: each case a new challenge, each class a fresh start.
I learned a lot from each course sequence I tried, but ended up graduating with a single major: theater. The exploration of creativity and humanity that I found in my theater courses was the thing that felt truest to me. Theater could be about anything, it could be for anyone. It could allow you to step inside of other worlds, and to create worlds of your own. Any issue, any topic, any situation, could be dramatized.
Grown-Ups Are Expected to Pick a Lane
As an adult, though I started off working at a few theaters, I resisted committing to a single career path. For me, it felt too limiting. I gravitated towards roles in smaller organizations or departments. Because of limited staff and resources, these jobs were inherently more generalist. In each case I had far more opportunities for learning and earned responsibility much more quickly than I could have in a larger company.
In my career, I’ve been a professional theater artist, a fundraiser, a marketing communications professional, and a writer. Not a single move was a mistake. I know there are job interviews that I haven’t gotten called in for because my resume isn’t linear and predictable. But, I also know that I probably wouldn’t have thrived at those companies anyway. Every one of my work experiences has helped me develop new skills and self-awareness. I am confident that I add value wherever I go, in part because of the varied perspectives I bring.
Life’s Better Outside the Box
We live in a society that loves to try to place us in tidy categories.
I challenge you to bust out of those boxes, my friends.
I’m going to be a writer, and a thinker, and a theater-making creative, and so many other things I haven’t even imagined yet. In fact, I'm not fully decided on what I want to be in life. That doesn’t make me scattered, it makes me honest. Honest about the fact that I have more to offer than can fit inside of a single box. You do too. Be brave—be unboxed.