Was studying art and culture abroad a waste?

Nearing 29 and back home, I fear I've been impractical

Published June 3, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am soon turning 29 and I am having a difficult time regarding my career. When I graduated college, I was able to continue my studies abroad through a fellowship, and stayed in said country for a graduate degree. That period of time was the happiest moments of my life, when I learned to live in the present and move past many of the emotional issues that I carried from my childhood (an absent father, a depressed mother). In fact, through lasting relationships I made there, I gained an emotional stability so absent from my past.

Now, I'm realizing that while those years were invaluable to me at a personal level, the consequence was that I had not spent my 20s thinking through more concretely where I wished to see myself in the future. As I've returned home, I am surrounded by friends and family who have moved ahead in life in established careers (and I know this will lead me to madness, comparing incomparable lives to one another), but I have a gnawing sense that I may have made a mistake staying so long abroad.

In short, if I continue on the path that I had pursued (studying culture, art), there is a real lack of stable jobs, which weighs on me. The thought, however, of completely switching careers seems so daunting and an admission of failure of the life that I had led up to this point. There is a part of me that wants to continue on in my given field (though it would require further graduate studies) and see it through to the end. My conflicting side, however, wishes me to redirect my interests to a more practical profession (whatever that means). I feel paralyzed and can feel myself sinking further into a dark hole, where all the insights and gains that I had made in the past few years are being buried with me. Thank you, Cary, for taking the time to read this message and providing any advice that you can.

Lost and Confused

Dear Lost and Confused,

You are at a turning point. You have discovered what you love and what you are good at. But now you are thinking about giving that up in search of stability.

Stability is illusory.

There is no stability in "stability."

There is no "stability."


There is human belief and passion and the desperately short span of a life. There is what you are good at and what you've worked at all your life. There are institutions dedicated to learning and art. There are people who work in those institutions. There are timeless works of art sequestered around the globe in bulwarks against barbarism. There are families and companies trying to live in a civilized way. There is monstrous change and upheaval. There is change and desire. And there is you.

Of course there is a lack of stable jobs. There is a lack of stable jobs everywhere.

But "stability" is a myth. How does one live one's life? You pursue what matters and do what is important. What is important is not what is easy and "stable." So you encounter difficulty. Difficulty is a given.

So what is going on now? What is making you doubt your path? What is making you doubt what you love? Why do you now distrust the knowledge and skill that have brought you this far?

Why would you abandon what you love? Why would you turn away from what matters and what makes you happy?

Why would you do that? Fear?

Let's talk about fear. I know about fear, this tightness in the chest, this feeling of constriction and heat, this feeling of panic. I know about this. When we look at certain things we feel that fear. For some people it's bills. For others it's parents, or peers, or dreams, or criticism or the threat of violence or of having our secrets be discovered. For some, fear arises out of the threat of failure and ignominy and public disgrace. All these things can be borne by a strong and honest spirit. You have a strong and honest spirit. You do not need to turn away from what you love. Fear never killed anyone. You just keep on moving through it. Things get better.

Bad economic times can scare us into wanting safer choices. But my argument is this: Bad economic times make formerly "safe" choices less safe. It evens the playing field. The arts and humanities always scrape along. All careers involve struggle. You will face difficulty whether you choose a supposedly practical, business-oriented career path or a path in the arts. But if you stay on your current path, you have advantages. You're already ahead. You have valuable expertise and experience.

You will be competing against others no matter what you do. But if you abandon your area of excellence, you place yourself at an unnecessary disadvantage. You will be competing with others who are much better prepared. You will be starting over. You will be starting over in a field you don't really want to be in anyway. That doesn't make sense.

You have not spent years preparing for a business career. Other have. You haven't been dreaming of such a career. You haven't made contacts. You have honed your appearance to meet the approval of businesspeople. So if you decide to compete now for scarce business jobs, you will be competing against more appropriately prepared candidates, people who have been working toward this thing for years.

Why would you do that? Fear?

Hello, fear. Fear is always there.

Working will be hard. It always is. Work will always be hard and fear will always be present. But what do you actually fear? That you won't have food to eat? That you will be on the street? What are your actual fears?

Here's my guess: You will not become a homeless person within the next five years. This I would bet on. You may not have the amenities you would like to have but you will be safe and comfortable. So what are you afraid of? The barbs of ambitious peers? Self-doubt?

Sure. But listen. Here is the big lesson: You are now an adult. You are no longer dabbling or exploring. This is your life. This is real. It's time to take yourself and your own life seriously.

Things may not turn out exactly the way you have imagined. But you have found what is meaningful to you. You have discovered what you love and what matters. Now is the time to act on that knowledge.

Many people take much more time to find this. Many never do. Many schlep along, surviving. You have found your great love. Now you are thinking of abandoning it? No way. Have courage. If I could get across anything, it would be to give you a sense of the urgency and preciousness of what you have. This is not something to cast off. You have found what you love. Now you have a lifetime to pursue it. This is your chance. You don't get unlimited chances. Everyone faces moments of doubt and fear.

Brush the fear aside. Keep working on what you love.

Creative Getaway

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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