Bragging moment: I was accepted into the University Honors Program in college. I even got a scholarship.
That letter in the mail was likely the pinnacle of my academic career. That, or the poetry award I won from Mr. Schaeffer at the end of 9th Grade.
I was your classic underachiever in school. And in retrospect, I completely wasted the distinction The George Washington University placed on me.
In order to maintain the scholarship and my place in the program, I was required to take at least one class each semester offered by the honors track. As always, I did the bare minimum. I followed the rules and aimed for a grade acceptable to me and my parents. (A “B” or above.)
The only classes I remember are two semesters of “An Introduction to Soviet Cinema”– from which I walked away better educated about cinematographic license and with the easiest “A” I ever earned — and my senior seminar with Professor Harry Harding, an expert on Asian-American relations.
I don’t remember why I took this class with Harding, since my interest area was the Middle East. I probably heard from someone that he was kind or didn’t give a lot of homework. I do remember, however, the brilliant research thesis topic I dreamed up for the paper I had to write at the end of the year:
“The Influence of Zen Buddhism on American Pop Culture”
I wish I could get my hands on that paper. And, then completely rewrite it. Because whatever I wrote was complete crap and/or borderline plagiarism, I’m sure.
This time, if given the opportunity, I’d actually do the research. I’d read more than the three required books. I’d actually do primary research. Find people to interview. Listen to their stories. Imagine what their lives were like. Swim in their memories. Meditate on them. And then produce a paper that truly encapsulated my brilliant findings and analysis.
But, like most 20-year-olds, like most people, I hated writing research papers. And this was a 25 page research paper (double-spaced), which was the longest by far I was ever required to write before or since.
I loved learning, though. I loved dialogue. And I was truly interested in the topic. But I was too bound by the rules and the concern for a good grade and the concern for a good job and a good career and a good paycheck and a good pitcher of beer to actually do what I imagine most teachers want you to do — learn about something and carry that education forward into your life.
I remembered this research paper yesterday when I watched a video a friend shared on Facebook.
It’s a series of images that illustrate a lecture given once by Alan Watts entitled “What If Money Were No Object?”
The name sounded familiar. I Googled him. Oh, yeah. He was the guy in my research paper from senior seminar; recognized as one of the key individuals responsible for bringing Zen Buddhism to the West.
I chuckled. Here was the voice of Alan Watts speaking to me — 20 years too late.
If only I had heard his voice for the research paper I wrote in college. If only the internet had been more than a chat room on AOL when I was in college.
If only I had heard Watts say:
“What do you desire?
What makes you itch?
What would you like to do if money were no object?
How would you really enjoy spending your life?”
I might have spent more time on my research paper.
I might have spent more time wondering if this Alan Watts guy was more than just page filler.
What would I have thought if I had been in that crowd?
Would Watts have inspired me then?
What message would I have taken away from that lecture?
Would I be the philosopher, the novelist, the soap opera star I sometimes wish I was?
“Crowds of students say, ‘We’d like to be painters. We’d like to be poets. We’d like to be writers.’
But as everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way…
When we finally get down to something which the individual says they really want to do, I will say to them, “You do that. And forget the money.”
Amen, I thought to myself, when I heard Watts challenge the audience to “forget the money.”
And then, “I wish someone had said that to me when I was 20.”
Easy for me to say now.
Easy now, at 38 years old, with a steady paycheck and two decades of experience making it on my own.
But would I have been able to really hear Watts then?
Would I have walked a different path?
I don’t know.
My life might have turned out exactly the same.
I was a lot more stubborn then. A lot less likely to listen to someone wiser than me. I might have done exactly what I did. Graduate. Get a job in a non-profit. Be happy that I was finally earning my own paycheck and had my own money to spend on jeans at The Gap in Georgetown. Or on big scrunchies.
I really wanted my own money back then. I wanted freedom from my parents. I wanted room to make my own choices. I didn’t see any possible way to achieve both freedom and my desire.
Which makes me think Watts’ advice would have registered only as a temporary instigation.
Because in our current society set up, it’s practically impossible to forget the money.
We have to follow our desires in spite of the money.
What you need to know if you choose to forget the money is how you will stay true to your desire when the rest of the world says you need money over everything else. You need to know how you will navigate the expectations of your family, your friends, your neighbors. You need to know how to avoid the pitfalls of consumerism. How to live without a TV; without an SUV; without a weekend getaway.
You need to build your life so that your life is your weekend getaway.
= = = = =
If anyone had asked me when I was 20, I wouldn’t have said then, “I’d like to be a philosopher.”
I wouldn’t have said, “I’d like to be a craniosachral therapist.”
I absolutely would not have said, “I want, more than anything, to be a full-time, paid-loads-for-a-living celebrated writer.”
I didn’t know it then.
And I couldn’t see the way.
And yet, I’ve been fortunate to find my way. To have either landed in or created circumstances in which I’ve been able to recreate my career based on my passions and desires.
I’ve been a children’s book author.
A magazine promoter.
A think tank thinker.
I’ve been a newspaper reporter and an editor.
I’ve been a web master.
A freelance writer.
I’ve been a brand strategist. And a stay-at-home mom. A Facebook goddess.
I listened to and followed my itch; years before hearing Alan Watts’ speech.
But, along the way, I’ve had to give up desires, too. Ignore certain itches.
I’ve had to choose.
Sometimes I’ve been able to forget the money.
And sometimes not.
Watts does not talk about choices…and consequences.
It’s not easy to follow your desire instead of following the money.
= = = = =
What would I say to a crowd of young people today?
How would I guide them?
I might say something similar to what Watts says: “Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing, than a long life spent in a miserable way.”
I believe this to be true. And I like to think that somehow, accidentally, when I was writing that research paper in college, Watts’ advice penetrated my tired mind as I was lazily investigating the influence of Zen Buddhism on American pop culture.
Perhaps, subtly his words have been guiding me ever since.
But I would also suggest being as flexible as you are determined.
For who knows what you will be when you grow up?
I didn’t. I still don’t.
I still ask myself every day, “What do you desire?”
And then listen for the answer.
Forget the money, yes. But be flexible. At every turn, there is an opportunity if you are primed to notice it.
Ask yourself every day, “What do I desire?” And be strong enough to acknowledge the answer and take action, even if the answer is, “Money.”
Jen Maidenberg is a writer, editor, activist and former assistant editor at the Arizona Jewish Post. Visit her website at http://jenmaidenberg.com/ She first posted this on her blog on 1.8.13