I’m torn between what I do and what I always thought I would do
November 9, 2011 2:38 PM   Subscribe

I’m in my late 20s and still wrapped up in self-indulgent “what should I do with my life” questions that I can’t seem to resolve. Sorry for a rambling question - please help.

I spent my teenage years obsessed with cinema and feeling a desperate, passionate desire to become a filmmaker and a writer. I absorbed movies, commentaries, books. I never did write a film or go to film school - I did a science degree, still thinking that one day I’d switch to film, somehow. Since then I’ve bought a DV camera, editing software, books, but not written anything, not made anything, not even learned how to use them. I don’t know why.

After cinema came comedy. I absorbed stand-up shows, interviews, sitcoms, commentaries, to degree approaching obsession. Watching stand-up in beer-stinking smoke-filled venues lit that same urgent, passionate fire in me that I used to get thinking about cinema. This time I did something about it - I started doing stand-up. I’m quite good at it, and that makes me feel amazing, confident, part of something I love and that is part of me. I’m nervous before the gig and concentrating too hard on-stage to enjoy it - I’m not sure I can say I enjoy doing stand-up, but I certainly enjoy that I do it.

My career in science has been quite good, but I’ve never committed to it. I’ve been lucky enough to work on interesting projects, and often enjoyed them, but never felt the same passion for them. I want to be excellent at what I do, but I’m not interested enough in the fundamentals of my role to get better at it - in fact when I try to improve, I quickly get bored.

Every time I start asking (again) “what should I do with my life?”, I come up with the same answers, without fail, for years now: become a writer. Become a comedian. Become a filmmaker. Make something you love as much as Withnail & I. Write for HBO. Be the new Patton Oswalt. These things stir something in me. I feel like the best version of me would achieve them - and that if I truly applied myself, I really could. I also think that if I don’t, I’ll find it hard to view my life as anything other than a failure.

But: while I think I’m good at writing, I don’t really enjoy it. In fact, for the most part I find it tedious and boring and awful. The idea of doing it for a living seems horrible. Similarly, to be a comedian is to spend endless nights alone in shitty hotel rooms and cold cities, facing nerves and hostile audiences, away from my family and friends. I thought I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I’ve never even made a short film. I’m not even sure that passion for film is still alive, but it still feels a part of me even if it’s dead. And so I just go through this same solipsistic cycle, endlessly.

(I have read recent writing along the lines of “DON’T do what you love”, which I respect and understand. The idea of keeping a steady job, with the money and creature comforts that provides, and keeping what you love doing as a hobby is appealing to me. But I think my problem is that maybe this isn’t about what I love doing - I’m really not sure I do love doing writing, comedy, film - it’s about being what I feel I was made to be.)

So: I can go back to science, embrace it, spend as much time as possible on the sort of work that interests me, and keep comedy and writing as sidelines, accepting the likelihood that I’ll never achieve what I want to in those fields. Or - I can push myself into a career writing and performing that might provide me the fulfillment that I need, but not the day-to-day enjoyment or comfort.

Either way, I know this navel-gazing needs to end for my own sanity. Whatever career I pursue, I need to choose and focus on it now: if nothing else, I want to be good at what I do.

Finally: I know how self-indulgent and teenage this all is. I fully understand any desire you may have to punch me, but this stuff genuinely upsets and frustrates me and plays on my mind constantly. I have to resolve it one way or another to move on. Any help you can offer would be hugely appreciated. My throwaway email address is: collapsedhead@gmail.com. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (22 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I don't want to punch you. Well, not out of a desire to hurt you. Maybe to knock you out so you can get some rest and peace and quiet for a minute.

Seriously, when I get like this -- and I do get like this quite a bit -- I will sometimes say to a close friend, "can you just grab that frying pan over there and knock me out?" I mean, they don't, and that's why we're friends, but it reminds me that what I need to do is calm down and focus on what's actually in front of me.

Your question doesn't actually center on why you need to choose and focus NOW. I could be mistaken (hey, I don't know you, and I sure as hell don't know science) -- but I think that's a false need you're making up now so you can spin and cycle in anxiety land, which is a great way to procrastinate. Don't even try to lie to me, your buddy in anxious creative angst. You love writing, you love performing, and you do enjoy it, it's just not easy, breezy and fun all of the time. Don't lie to yourself about that. You're freaked out because you're afraid of failing (or succeeding).

So I don't really have an answer for you, but I have a few questions you should ask yourself:

1.) "Why do I NEED to choose now?"
2.) "What would happen if I tried to pursue my dream and failed?"
3.) "Why am I so hard on myself for being nervous and afraid?"
4.) "Why do I feel like I have to do this alone?"

Maybe that will help get you past some of this anxiety. And don't apologize for being nervous and anxious. This is big stuff. Let yourself off of the hook for "indulging" yourself in dreaming big. Let yourself off of the hook for "being a teenager". Think of it differently - you're not jaded at the RIPE OLD AGE of LATE 20s! And you're kind enough to yourself to reach for what you really want! A+!
posted by pazazygeek at 2:52 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Why do you feel those are the only two options?

A story:

At one point in my life I wanted to be a physicist. I read many pop science books on physics, dreamed of one day making discoveries about time travel or string theory or what-have-you... and then I went to college and became a physics major, and discovered that while I loved the idea of being a physicist, I didn't love the actual doing of it. I was okay at it, but not brilliant, in large part because I didn't have the passion to really get awesome at the fundamentals.

What I did was switch to being a physics minor and flail around wildly looking for something that I did enjoy. I found some things -- nothing that I enjoyed as passionately as my wild daydreams made me think I should -- but many things that intrigue me to the point that I stay up at night puzzling over them, and spend a lot of time obsessing about them. I now have a career I really enjoy thinking about and doing them.

That makes it sound easy, like I just switched and everything was great. But actually it was many years of agonizing, and for a long while I compared the crystalline clarity of those dreams to the (sometimes) plodding drudgery of real life, and I thought I'd made a mistake. I hadn't: the thing is, dreams of who you could be are always going to be attractive and beautiful, because they gloss over all of the actual details of what you need to do to be that. You shouldn't make choices based on those dreams.

Make choices based on what you actually like. Based on what you've written, I don't think writing and performing is what you like. Perhaps what you really like is consuming other people's writing and performing -- which isn't bad; there are careers that enable you to do that, like being a critic; or you could do it on the side, and that's fine too. Perhaps science is interesting enough in the doing that that's enough for you (although perhaps not, if you're writing this question in the first place). Perhaps you haven't found your thing yet; no shame if that's the case.

The point is, though, that you're not going to find it by examining your dreams of what you want to be. You find it by doing lots of things and seeing what you like to do. So stop dreaming, and start doing.
posted by forza at 3:01 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

It seems to me that you don't really want to BE a writer. Ahem: I find it tedious and boring and awful. The idea of doing it for a living seems horrible.

If that's how you feel, take if off the table. Writing is very hard even if you think doing it for a living is REALLY FUN and creative and fulfilling and awesome.

I mean this next bit very kindly, so please take it that way. I’m really not sure I do love doing writing, comedy, film - it’s about being what I feel I was made to be

This is a sort of theoretical and idealized way to look at this -- "I was MADE to be a filmmaker! I MUST MAKE FILMS." Me, I once thought about going to law school, and then I realized that I actually wanted to just be the kind of lawyer you see in movies. The one who sweeps in wearing an awesome suit and eviscerates the witness with sparklingly wordplay. I would hate the day-to-day stuff. So I didn't become a lawyer and THANK GOD, because I would have been miserable and terrible at it. Whereas I enjoy the day-to-day of being a writer. I used to work in TV, and I enjoyed that a lot, too. If you don't like the day-to-day of whatever it is you're considering, don't waste your time, especially in fields as cut-throat as writing, comedy, and film, where you have to live your job to be successful, generally. Life is the day-to-day gruntwork of your job. That IS where the fulfillment is, in an ideal world. What is it about the creative arts that you think will bring you "fulfillment," if not the work itself? Because day-in and day-out, that's all there is, and if you don't enjoy it creatively at a certain level even when it's hard-sledding, then what is the point? TL:DR: Maybe you just want to be A Writer In a Movie, that way I wanted to be A Lawyer in a Movie.

All that being said, you seriously don't need to make an iron-clad decision now, or later. You can always change your mind. If you are interested in film-making, but you've never even made a short....dude, dig up your camera, figure out how to use it, and make a short film on the weekend like 65% of everyone else in Los Angeles, at least, and see how you like it. You might hate it, you might LOVE it. At least you'll know.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 3:09 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: 1) Nobody was "made" to be anything.
3) You are trapped in the mentality that what you pick now is what you have to do for the rest of your life.
4) You are not considering that you can pursue many different things, make money at one thing and pursue other things on the side.
5) One of the side-effects of the self-esteem "Everyone Is A Snowflake" movement that started in the 70s or whatever is that kids now grow up with this idea that somewhere out there exists the career equivalent of a soul mate. Someone out there is this Perfect Job that you will love forever, you will totally excel at, everyone will think is awesome, you'll make tons of money, and you'll do it for the rest of your life and it will be peachy keen. This is a total lie, no job is like that. Jobs are like relationships, there is no job soul mate, there are just good jobs and not-so-good jobs and all of them require compromise and hard work and days where you want to quit. Another way of saying this is "Nobody was 'made' to be anything."

The percentage of people who get Nobel Prizes in science or become big names in writing is so vanishingly small that hanging your future on choosing whether to because the Next Big Scientist or the Next Big Artist is ridiculous. Why not pick your job based on what will, on average, bring you the greatest fulfillment while making you enough money to live on? The job that you can actually get rather than some potential Magical Perfect Success Job that may or may not even exist for you no matter how much you work your butt off?
posted by Anonymous at 3:12 PM on November 9, 2011

I know how self-indulgent and teenage this all is.

Don't do this to yourself. Unless this statement belies a secret desire to be a monk, this type of self-flaggelation is only going to slow you down.
posted by the jam at 3:12 PM on November 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

You don't need to commit to something full time right away. It takes about ten years of practice to get really good at something.

If you like comedy, keep plugging away at it. Make friends that are comedians, go to lots of shows, take gigs when you can get them. Eventually, you'll wake up one day and find out that you're a comedian.

Or you won't, and circumstances will change, and you get a promotion at work, get married, have kids and comedy becomes an interesting thing you did in your twenties.

Or whatever else happens. Just take one day at a time and live life for you.
posted by empath at 3:13 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Stop thinking so much. Not one single person who was ever really good at something spent more than the bare minimum thinking about why they were doing it, they were too busy doing it.

I say give yourself a break from the worry, make small moves at things that make you happy and try to do at least one thing that really scares you. Complacency is something that comes through habit, shake it up and things will have more focus.
posted by rudhraigh at 3:13 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

My first thought on this is that you need to give things a try. I struggle with this a lot myself, but basically, you won't know if you want to be a filmmaker until you make some films, or a comedian until you try a few audiences and see if it's worth the cold hotel rooms.

So perhaps you should just try a few things and see what happens? Get *one* comedy gig. Make one *short* film. Or think about crossing what you know with what you might love -- science films? Science writing?

Good luck!
posted by 3491again at 3:20 PM on November 9, 2011

It sounds to me like maybe you like thinking about writing and comedy and film more than you like doing them. If you get all fired up watching other people's work, and analysing it, and considering how you would do it differently, and thinking Big Ideas about film and comedy and writing in general, have you considered trying to find a way to do more of that thinking stuff? What about trying to get into writing reviews (film, book, comedy shows)? Start a blog about these topics, or query local papers.

Or maybe you just keep on with your current job (or find a new one that maybe isn't the world's most inspiring thing) and film and comedy and writing becomes That Thing you are into in your evenings and weekends? (Again, maybe not as producer/creator - maybe you just go to a lot of films/shows and spend all your free time reading.) Having an all-consuming passion outside of work can be just as fulfilling as having work that IS your all-consuming passion, and when work and passion are kept separate, there are a few advantages:
- you don't have to "sell out" your ideas to the people providing the money
- you don't have to do any of the scut work that usually forms 90% of the job
- you can take a break any old time you like
- you can choose what "co-workers" (i.e. co-afficionados) you associate with.
posted by lollusc at 3:28 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

For the past few years I've been talking to a lot of people who made a choice (or not) between careers in science and music, and many do end up doing both, for similar reasons as why you end up having a hard time choosing between science and comedy/writing.

While I've put most of the interviews I did so far online, I've not published the parts of them where they talk about The Choice. If you're interested in hearing/reading them, though, do drop me a line. It is a difficult choice for many people, and you'll likely have some regrets either way. (Sorry, that wasn't very uplifting, but in general they were all happy with whatever they ended up choosing! Just sometimes wondering what *could* have been.)
posted by easternblot at 3:39 PM on November 9, 2011

I think that this brilliant comment from grumblebee might be helpful -- it's all about figuring out WHY you want to do what you want to do, and how to separate the aspects that you like about something from the aspects that you don't like (or are indifferent to). I'm not explaining it very well, but it's definitely worth a read.
posted by cider at 3:46 PM on November 9, 2011

Here's one secret that they don't tell you in film or science school. Knowing how to cut film, or run an experiment is easy, it's the fun part. The fun part is, if you're really lucky, about 5% but usually shift the decimal left. The rest is a slog. A long dreary frustrating mind numbing SLOG. Ask any world renowned research scientist how he loves grant proposals and how many hours he spends. Same with film, it's the the shooting ratio, it's the 10 day shoot that takes three years to organize and the next two to market.

One word: "Actuaries". They've got it made.

posted by sammyo at 4:42 PM on November 9, 2011

Ya, another vote to not beat yourself up about this. You pursued a degree in science and have a career and enjoy it somewhat? You were interested in stand-up and went for it? You're doing great in my book!

I'm now reading Finding Your North Star by Martha Beck. You may find it helpful. Even if you don't choose to go through the exercises, it may give you a new perspective. If doing the actual work bores you, those are good clues that those are not for you. It's a fantasy--a romantic notion of what being a "filmmaker" or "comedian" is actually like.
posted by biscuits at 5:48 PM on November 9, 2011

Oh dude. Don't be embarrassed that you're dealing with this in your late twenties. That's what your late twenties are for. This is how I see it: when you're a kid and an adolescent and then a post-grad, your life and, in many ways, your identity is all about possibility. All the things you could be. But then you hit that point in your late twenties or early thirties where all of a sudden, you realize that, hey, it's now the future. It's not enough to dream about what could be - you suddenly feel like you need to actually make one of those dreams a reality.

I could have written something very similar anytime between the ages of, say, 29 and 31 (you can look back through my posting history for the embarrassing evidence). Two years later, I've found a new career that I love and I think I'll stay in for a long time. It kinda fell in my lap, and I know that's not helpful to you. But I think all the questioning and examining that I did while I was waiting for that opportunity really helped once it came along.
posted by lunasol at 8:51 PM on November 9, 2011

Writing, filmmaking, stand-up comedy are hard work. There's no guarantee of success and the process isn't kittens and cocktails. Do you really want to DO these things or just say you do?

Every really successful standup has off-nights, has shitty bookings, has cold audiences. If this stuff was easy, everyone would do it. Commit to yourself, and go for it--go full bore and see what happens. Even if it sucks, you'll have had the experience of really committing and really going all out for the experience.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:54 PM on November 9, 2011

Okay, this question is really important to me because I've found myself numerous time in situations similar to yours.

The desire to be a writer is something you'll need to get out of your system. How you do that is up to you. See, the real issue you need to sort out is whether you want to write stuff or want to have the identity of being a writer (with pipe 'n all).

The thing about being a writer is that there are no obvious technical constraints. You can know straight away if you're a bad painter, architect, carpenter, because there's the tangible physical output you can more or less objectively evaluate its technical quality. As a writer, you have to rely on other people's assessments of your writing to an extent and unless you're writing poetry, there's no technical yardstick to say whether it's good or not. So there's always the question of whether you can write or not: you're never sure up until the moment you're published. Hence the doubt and the questioning you're having and that most writers have.

BUT, Becoming A Writer is also a really convenient hole to put all of your dissatisfactions and insecurities into. All of your 'if only's. And you're going to need to close that hole off one way or another in a really definite fashion or you're going to prevent yourself from enjoying your life by dragging that aspiration around.

Now you say you don't enjoy writing but you still want to do it. Just on this point, the act of writing, of creating 'art' (for want of a better word) is leagues away from the experiencing of that 'art'. Experiencing art is nice, creating it is not. That you don't enjoy writing does not, of itself, mean you shouldn't be doing it. I've talked this over with someone who is a successful visual artist and he says that he finds his work challenging and un-pleasurable, but also deeply satisfying. If you're finding it boring that's a problem because you shouldn't be bored with something you want to create out of, if you're finding it horrible then that's not uncommon.

Again, you're going to need to find a way to get this out of your system on way or another because it will haunt you otherwise. What I've chosen to do is take the year off, work part time to pay the bills and write all the rest of the time. If after this year nothing comes of it, I am not allowing myself to look back or to pursue a career in writing. Literary academic? Sure. Writer no. I'm not saying this is the right course of action for you and I am very much aware that doing this for me is probably a mistake if only because it's going to shoot my CV to hell. :) But you're going to need to put yourself in a position where you can fail at being a writer so you can cut out the question mark and move on. Make yourself fail at being a writer (submit to competitions, submit to publishers, do stand up, etc). Then you'll be able to begin to know if you are one.
posted by litleozy at 3:25 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm going to have to disagree with some of the above opinions suggesting hanging up the writing thing by becoming a consumer, etc. I hate to think of young college graduates stumbling across this Ask Metafilter post and deciding, yeah, art is stupid, I shouldn't do it.

It is stupid. But I subscribe to the hippie belief that everyone has the need to create, and if you don't, part of you dies.

So if you ever wanted to give voice to this stuff, you have to try it and see where it goes. I have a feeling you wouldn't hate writing as much as you say you do, if you could just change your approach to it and try to have a little more fun rather than taking it Metafilter-seriously. Check out The War of Art and see if it rings true for you the way it did for me.
posted by steinsaltz at 8:34 AM on November 10, 2011

I had to (sort of) pick between science and music. I still love music, I still learn new piano pieces all the time and spend a lot of my free time writing songs. Do I wish I could do it more? Yeah. Do I miss getting the gigs I don't have time to prepare for anymore, and do I spend a lot of grant-proposal-writing time daydreaming about Pursuing Music instead? Hell yeah. But I know that I can be a better scientist than I can be a musician, I feel like n number of good papers are a better life's worth of work than n number of good songs, and I'm also vain enough that I'd rather be a good scientist than a just-okay musician, because I know I have it in me to do really good science, but there are a lot of musicians who are way more talented than I am.

But that's my choice. I feel like the question really boils down to this: Imagine that you're dying. You weren't ever rich or particularly successful in your life. Would you rather die knowing that the work that you spent your life doing was a stack of obscure papers, or a stack of obscure jokes? (Also, and this decided it for me, I can explore my creative non-scientific pursuits during my free time. I can't have a neuroscience lab in my basement.)
posted by kataclysm at 8:59 AM on November 10, 2011

Do the aspects you enjoy and don't try to do the whole package just because society packages things. Don't want to do stand-up because of the touring? Then don't tour and keep doing local stuff. That is what I've done with singing, since I'm too sickly to do sustained performing and I would rather be with my husband every night. Don't do the parts that aren't fun or trick yourself into thinking you're somehow unsuccessful or undisciplined if you don't. Keep being obsessed with movies and learn about making them and don't write one. It's fun, so don't ruin your fun by thinking it's not good enough unless you introduce things that aren't fun.

One day you might feel differently, and touring or writing may seem like the coolest thing in the world. Or maybe you'll think you have a creeping interest and some extra wilingness to try what didn't seem fun before, and discover it interests you then. But don't force it.
posted by Nattie at 10:00 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

"3) You are trapped in the mentality that what you pick now is what you have to do for the rest of your life."

He doesn't have to do anything for the rest of his life, but if he wants to get truly good at something, it will take a damn long time.
posted by allseeingabstract at 3:19 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hi! Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a girl who had a dream of being a novelist. She took a journalism degree, that being the most practical related field; and on graduation, she got a job in advertising, and then in publishing, but she was very poor and her blood pressure tripled and it was miserable all around. She finally segued to a more practical and lucrative role as a project manager for a software company, which was at least calmer and paid a lot better. She still thought about being a writer; sometimes she would read about writing, and very occasionally she would even write something. But she wasn't really going anywhere with it.

Then one day, in her late 20s, she joined a community that had a collective experience that changed her life. Not right away -- she was very, very ensconced in her somewhat enjoyable, sort of dull, but very, very practical life on IT. But around the time she turned 30, she quit that practical job to work for a games company as a producer, and later, as a writer -- even though her need to be practical was higher than ever, as she had a husband, a mortgage, and a small child.

Several years later, she writes words for money, designs games, lives the flat-out no-holds-barred without-a-net creative life, and loves it to pieces. Her only regret is spending her 20s so very timid, so very afraid of taking a gamble for the brass ring, that she didn't get here sooner.

It's not too late to take a deep breath and go after the thing that you love. You only have one chance. Don't waste it.

That said -- creative work is still work. No matter how much you love what you do, there will be days that you don't love it at all; days when everything you write is tinged with crap, days when you don't get enough done, days spent invoicing and chasing checks and worrying about how you'll pay for the electric bill. Before you take the dive into that life, you have to take a really hard look at yourself and know if it's what you want that much. There's no shame in wanting the practical life, if it's giving you the things you genuinely value the most.

And that's what it comes down to. What's the most important thing to you? How do you live your life to get what you really, truly want the most? There isn't a right or wrong way to live.
posted by Andrhia at 5:26 PM on November 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks to all the contributors!
(they also asked me to mark it as resolved)
posted by mathowie (staff) at 7:51 AM on November 16, 2011

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