I was thinking about turning points today. We’ve all had those fleeting moments of inspiration, epiphany and sudden resolve that echo across the years. Sometimes they are only recognized in hindsight. Others are instantaneous. They are also somehow unpredictable and maddingly random. Sometimes those closest to us bestow them to us as gifts but often complete and dispassionate strangers toss them at us from out of the blue.
I was thinking about eighth grade specifically today. I attended a very small K-12 school in midwestern farm country and I remember taking some cheesy vocational aptitude test. It was a series of questions that asked how much you think you’d like to so something and then gave a brief description of the job. Shit, I was 13 years old, never worked a day in my life, but anxious to leave the farm and make it big somewhere. I think I answered ten to every job description that didn’t involve farm work or manual labor. Anyway, I remember us all lining up outside the counselor’s office, a dilapidated multi-use trailer surrounded by weeds and farm fields, on a beautiful spring day and waiting for the test results. The harried and clueless guidance counselor appeared in the door with a stack of papers and one by one we climbed up the rickety steps. There he handed us our results along with a snap judgment of our future. When it was my turn, he scanned the results and flipped the paper at me.
“You like people and writing. Advertising would probably be good for you.”
I walked back down the steps clutching the paper in my hand and the word in my mind. Advertising. The word sounded so exotic. Visions of Dick Van Dyke and Dick Sargent and cosmopolitan cities danced through my head. Advertising! The single word felt like magic in the corn.
Little did I know that a 15 second pronouncement by an incompetent guidance counselor on the basis of an absolutely pointless and silly test would waste my education, ruin my youth and change the course of my entire life, if not for the worse, then definitely for the poorer. In the eight years to follow, no one would ever stop to tell me that my entire personality was completely ill-suited for the business, that the adverting business was contracting and the glory days of the Mad Men were long past, that for the thousands of kids in advertising programs across the country there were only going to be a handful of great agency jobs, that thousands of kids were going to spend a hundred grand to end up selling advertising space in local newspapers. Neither did I stop and measure myself. It’d be two decades before I realized I actually liked physical work and, as it turned out, I really, really hated cities.
No, and that one moment was lodged like shrapnel in my soul.
On the other hand, my brother had a similar, but more positive, turning point in the same high school. Getting back one of his first assignments in drafting class, the teacher dropped the drawing on his desk and commented that it was very good. He had a talent for it. My brother never forgot it. Today he is an award-winning, successful luxury home designer.
Turning points. Who knows where we’ll meet them and where they’ll send us?
I’m thinking about this as I have a son who just finished his freshman year in high school. He has no idea what he wants to be. His junior high aptitude test told him he’d be a good refrigeration repairman. We had a good laugh over that. Different ideas float by like moods. I really try to avoid making a dumb suggestion that then somehow becomes set in stone. But how to I keep others from making dumb suggestions? How do I know they will be dumb suggestions and not pure genius? How can you control a turning point? How can you prepare someone to accept one?
I guess in the end, the advice from the ancient philosopher Thales applies best. “Know thyself.” The best I can do is expose him to as many new things as possible. Give him as much as the world as a meat-cutter possibly can and, hopefully he’ll have a variety of turning points to choose from.