When and why do we stop encouraging variety?

Posted in Personal
on June 12, 2019
Hobbies. A book lies open with a phone displaying a music player on top connected to headphones.

Whilst at school, we’re told repeatedly to enjoy these, the best days of our lives because, one day, we’ll have to deal with “real life” and it’ll be a shock to the system.

Not to mention that many kids are dealing with very real issues even whilst they’re at school, I don’t think anyone would suggest that “real life” post-school is the same as what we’re used to in our childhood and teenage years. We all know and have experienced just how different the two are and, for lots of us, that difference is jarring for many reasons.

I’ve been thinking an awful lot about one particular reason that school life and adult life feel so different for me, and maybe it’s the same for you too?

I’ve been reading a lot of therapeutic literature recently and one thing that I keep reflecting on is when I felt more content and settled. One of the times which comes to mind is when I was at school.

Sure, I had my worries at school and it wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies, but it was mostly where I felt like myself.

When we were at school, and it’s the same for kids today, we were encouraged to take part and try all sorts of new things. We were really praised if we had a few different activities going on, or we were excelling at different subjects.

Throughout my own time at school, for example, I got into arts clubs, drama, learning to play piano, baking, self-elected research projects, creative writing clubs, poetry competitions, outdoor adventure activities and, of course, my friends and I would spend our break times making up dances to perform in assemblies because, at the time, creative expression was inspired by my new B*Witched tape. When I went to secondary school, I organised our year 11 prom with my friend, I was briefly in the Amnesty International club, I contributed to our magazine, I went to fitness classes, and messed around with photography for a while.

My friends were all doing their own, individual things, too. Sports teams, community theatre, learning to code and program, building stuff, learning different instruments and forming bands, all sorts.

All of this in addition to our 5 hours of lessons each day, which were also hugely varied. Think about your typical school day in secondary; maths, English, science, PE, history…you were studying 5 hours of 5 completely different topics. So much variety!

Suddenly, when we get to the end of our school career, it’s like a switch is flicked and the whole perspective changes.

Instead of praising and encouraging us for having such varied interests and full lives, we’re increasingly pressured to ‘pick one’ and ‘decide what one thing to do next’.

Finish your exams and decide which one subject you want to take further to college or university level. Or choose one area of work in which to do an apprenticeship or get work experience.

In a matter of months, we go from enjoying a massive array of interests to having to choose one path to start to work on, seemingly for the rest of our lives.

Nobody would put it that way if you asked them, though.

“So, I’m supposed to pick one thing now that’s going to carry me forward for my entire career?”

“No, of course not, you can always change your mind!”

And you can, but it isn’t always that easy, in my experience. Logically, we know it’s absurd to ask teenagers to choose their entire lives’ work based on what they’ve done so far but the reality is that the world is set up to favour those who do choose one path and stick to it.

My experience is that the world is very much giving us the message that we’re supposed to end up being specialists in something. We have to be immersed so deeply in our fields that we become sought-after experts in our chosen niche.

We choose our GCSE subjects, then A Levels or further study, then maybe a degree or diploma, then a career focus, then a niche within that career…it gets narrower and narrower the older we get.

One of the reasons I didn’t continue to study psychology after my undergraduate degree was that I couldn’t pick one research interest or specialism. I wanted to continue to study biology, neuroscience, child psychology, evolution, health psychology, mental health and sociology. I didn’t want to pick a PhD and spend four years researching the effect of one tiny thing on this other tiny thing in this tiny population.

The reality I have seen is that adults are not encouraged to pursue variety in our passions and interests, especially when those things don’t seem to go together. Of course, it’s quite normal to have your main job, maybe a little side-gig and a couple of hobbies, but it’s nothing on the scale of what we were encouraged to explore at school.

It’s unlikely that, in adult life, you have the time or the permission to work, continue to study, pursue anything and everything which interests you, travel, stop working for a while, try and start something new, and really indulge every side of you.

Most people I know work full-time and have done since they graduated. Many are struggling with balance and feeling like it’s OK to pursue their other hobbies and interests because they aren’t necessarily going to make them any money. We don’t tend to do things just for the joy or interest as adults.

I haven’t talked about this a lot in person but, when I have, the sentiment behind the response is always:

“That’s just the way it is when you’re an adult”

“You have responsibilities and bills to pay, there’s no time for childish indulgence”.

I dunno about you but I’m not satisfied with that, at all. I think, for myself, one of the reasons I’ve felt so unhappy when it comes to work sometimes is that I’ve been forced to choose and specialise and that often, for practical reasons, means giving up so much more of what I’m interested in.

And this is the reality we live in. A perfect example is when it comes to write your CV. I used to worry about what people would think about my vastly varied work experience: I’ve worked in the NHS, for non-profits, in the health and fitness industry, in a laboratory, in food manufacturing, retail, and I’ve been self-employed. To many, many employers, that looks flaky and inconsistent and comes across as a weakness.

It seems we’re much more employable when we can say we’ve had 10 years of experience doing the same thing.

In my most recent job interview, the interviewer commented on my varied work experience and asked where I wanted to be in 5 years. Normally, I’d be panic-stricken by this, searching for an adequate justification for my life choices. Instead, I talked about how my varied career is actually an asset because I’ve learned completely different transferable skills, worked with a huge range of people, and that gives me completely different and unique insight compared to a specialist. I said that I’m still relatively young so I don’t feel like I need to have everything figured out in that time frame and that I’m quite happy to continue to collect knowledge and experience as I go, follow my interests and see where they take me.

I got the job, btw, so I guess it isn’t all bad.

I know a ton of people get their thrills from knowing everything there is to know about a particular topic and becoming experts and specialists. No doubt the world does need those and I’m glad they exist (oncologists, for example).

I just wonder about the others, the generalists, like me. The ones who liked the variety they were exposed to as a kid and would love to have that in their lives as an adult, if only the world would be more open to it.

I don’t have the answer, of course. I guess I’m just more in a place of feeling like I want to and I can be myself and, hopefully, show some of the doubters that you don’t have to be a specialist, an expert, and live and work in a little niche in order to succeed. Especially if that doesn’t make you happy and means giving up the other things you want to fill your life with.

Taking a blogging break and finding inspiration again
studying in bed

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