Tacking to Success

Has a five year old ever told you that he is going to be a fireman, doctor and president of the U.S.? I bet that you didn’t begin to lecture him on the realities of life. Likewise when a little girl says that she plans to be a ballerina, lawyer, surgeon and mommy we don’t feel the need to explain how one choice might preclude another.

If a twenty-year old told you the same thing, you would probably react differently. At the very least you would think that he or she needs a reality check. You would also probably be pretty unimpressed with the speaker. Most of us understand the need to focus in order to achieve. Getting a broad education and being conversant in many areas is admirable, but the phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none,” is generally not seen as complimentary. An Internet search revealed a number of phrases like this Estonian one, “Üheksa ametit, kümnes nälg” (“Nine trades, the tenth one – starvation”).

To a young person setting out on a career path, this reality can seem incredibly limiting. I was recently talking to an impressive young man who was discovering that even making a career choice, as he did by going to law school, was only the beginning. More apparently constricting decisions were needed each step along the way as he chose classes and eventually applied for an internship in a particular area of law.

Many areas today do require that type of narrowing of focus. But that is not a comprehensive picture. As with so many aspects of life, both a microscope and a broad lens are needed. Years ago, when we added two rooms to our house, we had a wonderful experience, despite all the horror stories we had heard about construction. Our contractor was a gem and the finishing touch was when he presented our children with a story he had written, featuring them all.  It turned out that Dennis had been a professor of English who changed careers. I also have a friend whose husband became a teacher after practicing medicine for over twenty years. Certainly, changing specialties within a field is common practice.

One lesson of sailing is that sometimes you need to move in the wrong direction to get where you want to be. To a novice, tacking (zigzagging back and forth) looks like wasted effort, but when the wind is head on, the longer path is the only effective one. Furthermore, in life, we aren’t always sure exactly where we want to end up, at least professionally. What we think will be a final destination sometimes turns out to be a way station. As long as you are moving, you can get where you want to be. An unwillingness to commit to a decision leaves us in the doldrums, with no momentum to propel us forward.

As our five year olds mature, they will come to forks in the road and need to step on one or the other path.  Paradoxically, whatever direction they take can loop around to an entirely different one as long as they commit themselves diligently to the task at hand. Rather than narrowing their options, if granted the blessing of time, mastery of any field can ease the way towards mastery of another one.


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