Can a 26-year-old MBA become a gardener? Is that cool?

I've got a BFA too, and I've run a nonprofit, but I want to do what makes me happy

Published January 6, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

After writing yesterday's column,  and before heading out to watch "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" at the Sundance Kabuki (and before trying to figure it out), I saw a Dec. 12 "Vanguard" piece on Current TV about Occupy Wall Street in which correspondent Christof Putzel moves into Zuccotti Park. I was quite moved by a sequence  about Fetzer Mills, a retired Naval officer from a small town in Lauderdale County near Memphis, Tenn. It brought home the economic devastation that many people are experiencing firsthand.

So as my wife and I turned onto Geary Boulevard on our way to the movies, I thought about what it must be like to be living in a small town and watch the destruction of factories and stores that have been there your whole life. I realized how lucky I was to be employed and going to the movies. It occurred to me that my ideas about how an unemployed professor might cope with joblessness and "social death"  may sound hollow to somebody who's out of a job and has watched his whole town fall apart.

It's fine to help an individual cope, but where is the solution? Are all America's jobless supposed to just sit and meditate and read sociology until things change?

It is not enough to just survive joblessness. We must work for collective political solutions.

My role at Salon is to write about how individuals face crises. But individual crises have roots in political conditions. I don't share the belief that we can alter our fate simply by visualization, or chanting, or that it's enough to get into therapy to cope with our misfortune. Bad things happen to good people for political reasons. Good people get screwed over by indifferent strangers thousands of miles away because laws and regulations allow it.

The capitalist world is full of peril. Government's proper role is to regulate capitalism so its most savage effects are managed and its worst excesses prevented.

That's what politics is for.

I am employed. I live in a house. One day soon it may be time to crawl into a tent and spend some time with my spiritual brothers and sisters on the front lines of a new and just movement for human dignity and reform. That's how I feel about it.

Now on to today's letter.

Cary, please help me.

I loved your latest column because I face a similar issue, but I am at a different phase in my life. I'm 26, married and unemployed. I'm not depressed; I enjoy life and my hobbies, but I don't know what to do with my life. I have two degrees, some decent experience and no idea what I want to do. I don't know exactly what I'm good at, so I go by what my husband and some people that I've worked with have said.  They say I'm good with people -- a relationship builder. I'm a good communicator as well. I am articulate with a great vocabulary, and have worked a lot on my verbal presentation skills. I've also been told I'm a decent writer. I'm good at figuring things out and getting them done -- a quick learner.

Well, what are my passions? Aside from reading a lot of advice columns, I want to become enlightened, I want to help people, and I want to help the creatures and plants on this earth. Being drawn to sunlight and plants, I worked at a greenhouse in high school, and later as a community garden coordinator (my first "real job"). I learned a lot in the two years as a garden coordinator because I was the only employee. I did fundraising, grant writing, community building, press stuff, and the basic work of the organization. It was a great experience, but I became cynical and soured quickly.

I have a BFA and an MBA, but I don't have a passion for art anymore, and the business degree I got in order to help with the nonprofit administration, which I clearly didn't continue with. I've done a lot of thinking about the things that I value in a job. I liked the readings that you linked to, especially the whole "work for meaning vs. work for money" dichotomy in "So what's work?"

I have thought a lot about that, because I've never made enough money to survive in my entire life. (My social conditioning says that is pathetic, a comment I try very hard to ignore.) My husband makes enough money that we live comfortably and I'm extremely grateful for that. He thinks it's safer not to be completely dependent on one income, and I agree.

It is for this reason that I want to work, but also because I want to contribute. I want to participate in life. I know above all, I want to work with nice people ... but I need direction. I thought about getting a degree in horticulture, because that is the only thread I can follow in my very short "career." But what in the hell am I going to do with that degree?

I've thought a lot about economics, which perplexes me, and I've thought about trying to change the entire field from the ground up. I have only taken one very basic course in this subject, mind you, so I've considered auditing some classes in the subject. I want to start a municipal compost program in my city, but I don't work for the city, and I am a bit daunted by the task that I don't know anything about, and the fact that there is no one lined up to pay me for it. So I've come up with some grandiose ideas about things I want to do, but "practically speaking" it just seems like a crazy fantasy that has nothing to do with an income. Cary, what should I do with my life?

In a Morass

Dear In a Morass,

You like gardens. You like helping people. You like working with money.

Gardens. People. Money. I suggest you follow a path back into the garden, where there are people and also money. There may also be education there. What if you could combine gardening, money, people and education? What if you could teach people about money using the garden as a foundation? What if you could create a nonprofit organization that teaches people how to manage their money by using the garden as a metaphor or experiential teaching ground? That would be interesting.

That's one idea. There are lots of ideas. But you are in a prime place to do something extraordinary. You don't have to limit yourself to dull, salary-making activities. Now is the time to dream up something unique and wonderful.

It's not always going to be like this. Anything could happen. You could have a kid. Your husband could lose his job. One of you could become ill. This is a golden opportunity. So get with somebody who can help you plan and do the paperwork, and come up with something original and wonderful.

Now, ideas are cheap. Advice is cheap. This advice, in matter of fact, is free. And there's a lot of advice on the Web. One thing I do that others don't is I try to bring your attention to small events and decisions that may have long-lasting consequences. I look for the little swerves in life that we don't realize we're making.

For instance, your disheartening experience with community gardens. You may think that you simply came to some conclusions -- that the nonprofit world sucks, that people are insane, etc. -- but you may also have unconsciously plotted a path away from the very thing that makes you happy. So  it is crucial to look at this two-year community garden thing you did. First, appreciate it for how great it was. Really. It's one of the coolest things imaginable. You may have understated just what an accomplishment it was.

Next, ask yourself exactly what happened. Were there conflicts with others? Did you get in a power struggle? Were you blindsided or betrayed in some way? Did the project fail, and did you experience feelings of grief and hopelessness at its failure? Did you see other people behaving in ways that are dishonorable, and did that sour you on working with others? Tease it out. It might help to write it out, maybe in the form of a 12-step inventory.

I really think you will benefit from examining in detail what happened, rather than closing it off as simply an experience that soured you and made you cynical.

Besides, if we look at the origins of cynicism, we see it taught that "the purpose of life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature." So when you became "cynical," it may be that you are seeing into the true nature of people -- that they can be duplicitous, shallow, manipulative, mean-spirited, self-destructive, conniving, etc. True enough. Welcome to humanity. People are like that. That doesn't need to make you bitter or dispirited.

The question is, How, therefore, shall I live?

You have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right now to create something new, fun and wonderful, and to be in charge of it. I'll bet there are foundations that would willingly fund an innovative program for helping people learn how to manage their money, meet their neighbors and grow vegetables at the same time.

Like I say, it's just one of many ideas. The main thing is, follow what you  love. It will lead you to what you need. And you'll end up helping others along the way. As you work, you will experience setbacks. At times, nothing will make sense. At times, you will wonder if you've done the right thing. No one job or path is going to eliminate worry or uncertainty or random misfortune. But your best bet is to seize the opportunity right now and follow what you love.

By Cary Tennis

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