August 10, 2011
If Emerald City was as Dorothy had always imagined it would be — the great Wizard kind, and its glittering spires, just like home — then it would be similar to how I’d always imagined my future. Not to say that I thought every minute of my future was golden, but that I’d always pictured life to be something like the yellow brick road; if I can endure the journey, then at the very end of the road I will reap the reward. More specifically, if I drive myself harder than anyone else, bust my ass to be the best, and cry bitterly at least once while trying — whether it’s in school or at the workplace or simply during the everyday process of trying to better myself — then I will have earned happiness in the end. Something akin to eating the yellow skittles before the green ones: I would suffer in order to win.
I’m not sure if this mindset was entirely thanks to nurture rather than nature, although I’m inclined to believe it was. Maybe my parents instilled the concept in me while young — Tiger Mom says eat your broccoli, then candy maybe! (just kidding, my mom is great) — but I think this outlook on life was mostly the result of my own accumulated experiences (and maybe a little due to society’s mantra of “work hard and retire early!” impressed on America’s youth ever since they’re able-bodied enough to earn a penny). Every time I did something I despised — like memorizing the multiplication tables or practicing the violin or drilling myself for the SATs — it ultimately paid off in spades. Up until last year, I wholeheartedly believed in what I thought was an infallible system, that gain is only through pain, and that if I worked superbly hard in school, in my career, and in life, I’d achieve that most coveted reward in the end: happiness.
But what I never truly imagined was what would happen if I took this idea of “no pain no gain” from my past experiences and applied it to the much larger scale of a lifetime, like taking a tiny, frayed piece of string one end in each hand and stretching it as long as my armspan. What if I really did bust my ass starting now — say, throw myself into the fray as someone’s subordinate, work long hours for monetary and psychological rewards that don’t quite measure up, consistently prioritize work over love and family, and do this for thirty long years — what then? Will I have achieved happiness at fifty? Will I finally have the peace of mind combined with the rigor of imagination to write that story that’s been sitting in my head, or the time to visit the Amazonian rain forests and gaze wide-eyed at the Northern Lights?
Of course, happiness to me doesn’t only involve the comforts of retirement. I yearn for a successful career as well. But I realized that even in the case of an architectural career, I had, like I had with my general outlook on life, only set my sights on the reward near the end — the joy and prestige of owning a firm and creating my own designs — rather than the process of getting there. And that is where I made my mistake.
I found out in this past year of working and communicating with professionals that passion is, indeed, required in the architectural field as in any other, but not in the way I’d thought. The majority of my passion can’t simply lie in creating my own designs if I want to enter architecture as a life-long profession; I must also love the process. One must embrace the field itself, fiercely admire the work of those greater than her, keep up with the work of her colleagues, have an unquenchable thirst to learn the technical aspect of building in addition to the creative, and have incredible patience as a member of the creative team, collective, which will trump her, singular, for the majority of her career. All of these things compose the real job of an architect, and would take up most of my young life — my twenties, my thirties, possibly some of my forties — if I chose this path. If I didn’t love it all, then I’d be throwing away decades of my life. I didn’t love it all.
There emerged the conflict: should I struggle during my youth to achieve happiness later, or choose a career that I’d enjoy more now but promises a smaller pay-off? I’d thought, panicking, surely I could not achieve as much happiness, whether that lies in money or success or family, if I did not first suffer through pain and sweat and tears. Surely. But why? Why should I have to put off happiness?
Isn’t it interesting that society frowns upon “more immediate” gratification as much as it does? As much as teachers encourage children to “study what you love!” as soon as the economy wobbles, any level headed teenager realizes that they should sacrifice whimsical dreams for job security and one’s annual bread. Even science supports the saying “good things come to those who wait;” a study done at Stanford University showed that toddlers who could resist instant gratification in the form of 1 marshmallow by waiting twenty minutes for 2 marshmallows grew up to become more balanced individuals and to score higher on the SATs than those who couldn’t resist the 1. I’ve always been one to wait and hope for 2. Now I’m slowly changing my mind.
Of course, the matter of choosing a career is not as simple as choosing to eat 1 marshmallow now or 2 later. In other words, it’s not accurate to say that if I choose a career I enjoy more now, I would experience less happiness in the long run than if I choose a career that saves all the happiness for the end. But even if that were the case, I think I’d still choose the former, just because of one simple matter: scale. After all, twenty minutes is a far cry from twenty years. I may be willing to waste twenty minutes on your experiment, but I won’t waste away twenty years of my life waiting to do what I love.
Choosing not to pursue architecture was a difficult decision, and one that I’ve dwelled on for most of this past year. It’s a completely wonderful and respectable field — just not for me. Since high school, I’ve hidden my love for drawing and illustrating in order to hug money and security and prestige closer to my chest. I never imagined I’d let that go and make this decision based on what I want out of life (rather than what people expect me to want), and not only what I want at the sunset of life but throughout the sun-shining day, the now. And I guess that’s the foresight that only growing up could have shown me: that what you get at the end isn’t everything. It isn’t even close.
My wish has always been to bestow art upon the world. I never cared overly much what format that art is in, because I love almost every craft and because my hands have discovered from a young age that they can handle most of them with a vengeance. At age six I swore I’d be an artist, at age eighteen an architect, and now an animator for the films I’ve always loved. I’ve tried flute, violin, piano, ballet, drawing, writing, illustrating, painting, Chinese calligraphy, architecture, photography. But because the world requires us to one day stop and choose, I believe with one whole heart that we should use only one criteria to make such a decision. The question is not what I want for the end of my life, but for most of my sweet, long life. And the criteria is love. A measure of true love. What I’ve chosen may not have been my first love but that’s okay because, perhaps, time is what gave it truth. Time gave me these first two decades to try almost everything — and thus enabled me to choose. And I’ve chosen.
Even as I wait to go to Academy of Art University this fall for my MFA in 3D Animation, I face the occasional moment of doubt. Will I regret this and turn back to architecture? What if there’s no money to go back to school, no time? I’m sure that I’ll work as hard at this as I’ve ever worked at anything; what if that’s not enough? But after only a minute of dwelling on my doubts, I think that perhaps the most important decisions must carry some doubt, or else they’re not as important as we’d thought. And into my body floods a wave more certainty than uncertainty that I should move forward.
And forward I will move.