There was a fairly big brouhaha last week among my segment of the office. An invitation was sent out for all research associates about a retreat (out of town, overnight) for us to discuss our research interests and how those interests relate to and fit within the other research done by our organization. As I have absolutely no intention of making a career of this, do not have research interests that relate to anything done here, and really had no inclination to go, I declined. So a few days pass. Then I get an email from my boss wanting to know why I and my coworker had declined. My friend had an actual conflict (doctor’s appointment or something). I politely told my boss that as it was an invitation, I assumed it was optional. She then proceeded to give me this long spiel about how it’s for the good of my career and how the big boss (who is hosting this shindig) wants to foster the next generation of research scientists. I politely explained that I was not going to be the next generation of research scientist. The long and the short of it is that I got accused of being “difficult” (God forbid I have a life outside the office that I find more important and appealing) and coerced into going. I am not pleased.
So this morning, we were having an informal meeting about current project status and she asks my coworker and I who wants to work with her on running some analyses for one of our projects. I pointed at my co-worker. And my boss looks at me and says that that’s not a good attitude, don’t I want to make a career as a research scientist?
I sort of arched a brow. “No. I don’t. I told you that last week when we were discussing that retreat.”
“Well what do you want to do?”
“I want to be a novelist.”
At which point she looked at me as if I just announced I want to be a professional belly dancer. After a pause, she said, “The world needs more female scientists.”
So this is very firm confirmation that she didn’t hear a word I said last week. That’s annoying on it’s own level, but that’s not what I want to talk about.
The whole thing got me thinking about the duality of opinion that exists about writers. Society as a whole admires it’s bards. This is a characteristic that dates back centuries. Bards were/are the storytellers, the keepers of history and culture. They were revered in many cultures. Even today there is often this sort of awe or mystique associated with people’s reactions to writers. But there’s one important caveat to that. This is the reaction to published writers.
To those of us in the aspiring camp, people look with varying degrees of astonishment, derision, and questions about our sanity. Writing books is not seen as a respectable profession to pursue. It’s not a “sensible” profession, and that part is, I suppose, true. There’s a lot of risk involved, no steady paycheck, no pre-paid benefits. The same risks apply to owning your own business though, and people don’t look down on others who do that. So what gives?
Some part of me thinks that it’s because those people who sneer or think we’re insane secretly wish that they had the guts. The chutzpa to take that risk and do something rewarding and creative with their lives. The prevailing attitude is that we should all play it safe, even if it means being unhappy. So to those people, we who take the risk and succeed (notice my self-confidence) are both awe inspiring and the subject of much envy. At least that’s my theory. I think to make it in this business, you have to be a little arrogant and crazy. Otherwise, you’ll never get out of the gate.
For more on the issue of risk and failure, check out Zoe Winters’ series of posts on the subject: