Having The Talk (No, Not That One…)

As I was trawling Facebook this morning, I ran across a post from Morgan Freeberg, proprietor of The Blog Nobody Reads (but which you should). It featured a woman complaining about her lack of immediate financial comfort following her choice to go $60K into debt pursuing a Master’s in Women’s Studies. Yeah, I know, but that’s not really the point this morning. What struck my imagination was a comment Morgan made down that thread:

When I was a boy, my uncles & aunts and much-older cousins would flail around trying to figure out small-talk they could make with a seven-year-old, and the fallback was to chat me up about “what do you want to be when you grow up” and there would somehow ensue some exchanges about astronauts, firemen, et al. I dunno if the average little girl had the same experience; I know it was de rigueur for boys. And I remember we’d start to discuss aptitude, without using that actual word unfortunately, when my grades tanked at school — but not before that, which would suggest to me that the other kids who didn’t have problems, didn’t have the same talk.

Now, I don’t do what we were talking about in those talks, but nevertheless I think they can still help a lot, in the sense that kids are robbed of something when they don’t have them.

Now, Morgan and I are of an age, I think, because I remember those talks as well. And in my case, one of the things I took away from them was the important fact that although I had certain obvious talents even as a kid, I also had limitations. For example, I remember saying to my folks one day, “I want to be an astronaut when I grow up.”

Dad shook his head. “Won’t work — you’ll be too big.” (The doctors had predicted I’d top out at 6′ 4″ and 250 pounds. Alas, I only overachieved in the second part.) He explained that space capsules were cramped spaces, not really designed for hulking brutes of the sort I was destined to become.

Likewise, when I suggested that I might like a career as a secret agent, he pointed out that spies (at least of the sort to which I was referring) generally require a degree of protective coloration not typically found in very large redheads of my personality type. I wouldn’t be able to blend in enough for such a gig.

When I was a teenager, my friends (both in Kentucky and back in Nashville) were musicians — many of them quite good. When I talked about pursuing a music major, my folks pointed out that while I was a competent drummer, I was never gonna be Joe Morello or Neil Peart, and that it might be good to be able to do other things. (Oddly, that proved to be liberating for me over the years. Once I realized that I was only competent and not star-quality, I was free to follow my passion for the music I love, rather than my passion for a career.)

These days, I suspect that parents who dropped this sort of truth on their kids would receive much tut-tutting, accusations of dream-crushing, and such. And I’ll admit, there was a certain amount of disappointment on my part, but I knew my dad loved me and wasn’t speaking from cruelty — he was simply telling the truth: Not everyone can do anything they might want. Instead, he said, you have to find the things that align with your abilities and your limitations and do those things as best you can. And by teaching me that lesson, he helped me find my way (after a false start or two) to what I do now. I’m grateful for that.

And I find myself wondering if there might be less frustration if more folks learned that lesson early on.

UPDATE: Morgan continues the discussion.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Education, Family, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Having The Talk (No, Not That One…)

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  2. Eris Guy says:

    “He explained that space capsules were cramped spaces, not really designed for hulking brutes”

    Well… Perhaps he should have imagined space travel wouldn’t be the same in 25 years and encouraged you anyway. Many astronauts advanced degrees in the sciences, something which might be of value even when space capsules are made for jockeys.

    • profmondo says:

      Perhaps, but as it stands, things went pretty well for me. No complaints, Sarge. (Also, I think he was sharp enough to have noticed the decline in government support of space stuff, post-Apollo. I certainly remember him grousing about such.)

  3. Javahead says:

    I didn’t get that much from my parents or grandparents, perhaps because I was good at science and math and I’d always aimed at a science-or-technical career.

    For the longest time, my aspiration was to be a research astronomer, probably an astrophysicist. My second choice was “mechanical engineer” (thanks to Robert Heinlein and the US Space Program for both). I was an amateur astronomer (built my own telescope), I experimented with electronics, and was generally about as nerdy as a kid growing up on a rural cattle ranch could be.

    But I got what was probably the best talk of this sort in my life when I was a junior in high school. I’d participated in the state science fair with fair success – I washed out in the semifinals, but as a consolation prize I was an observer for the finals at San Francisco State University, and able to participate in all the programming offered by the various departments.

    One of the seminars offered was on radio astronomy – they had a small radio and visual observatory set up on the department’s roof. After the seminar, I talked to the professor who gave it, told him my goal, and asked him for his advice. His advice wasn’t quite what I expected:

    “Son, I don’t want to discourage you, but you need to know some things. First, to do what you want to do you’ll need a PhD in Astrophysics. Every year in the US, we’re graduating about 50 PhDs in the field. Of that number, perhaps 10 will be able to get positions doing primary research. Another 10 or so will get jobs like mine – teaching at the university level, but able to do some research as well. The other 30 or so will end up getting jobs in other technical fields that don’t require the PhD – good jobs, but not astronomy. If you can’t imagine anything else that you would rather do with your life, knowing the odds, pursue it. But if you have some other career that you’re also drawn to that offers better odds of success, you should at least consider pursuing that career and keep astronomy as a hobby.”

    This was a hard one to swallow, but I had time to think it over. And he was right: I wasn’t sure I wanted to live a student lifestyle for the next 8 to 10 years with only a 20% chance of getting the job I really wanted. Much as I loved the idea of research, I also loved the idea of creating new machines, or devices, or computers. And it was a field with both a lower threshold of entry (BS vs PhD) and many, many, more available jobs.

    Despite some detours along the way, I ended up a software engineer working in Silicon Valley. I like what I do. And I have a spare room full of telescopes that get hauled out regularly.

  4. Pingback: The Better to Hose You With, My Dear | Professor Mondo

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