Do you remember this 1970s Crackerjack TV ad? (If you don't, then just watch it. That's why I embedded it. You're welcome.) "Whaddaya call a kid who can swing like that? You call that kid a Crackerjack."
This ad popped up repeatedly during Saturday morning cartoons when I was a kid, and jealousy would surface. I would bitterly think, "What's wrong with me? How come I'm not really good at any one thing? I'm not a Crackerjack kid." I certainly wasn't that girl in the ad: I took gymnastics, and while I managed to learn how to do an aerial, I never could master a back handspring or the uneven bars because my arms were too skinny and weak.
My grandmother would buy me Crackerjacks. I'd first dig out the prize, then pick out the peanuts, and finally crunch the caramel-coated popcorn, all the while feeling like a fraud. And just as I embedded this charming ad for you, dear reader, that stupid ad has been embedded in my subconscious my entire life. Thank you, Crackerjack, for introducing me to Imposter Syndrome.
I always envied people who knew exactly what they wanted to be when they grew up, or who were driven enough to be truly amazing at just one thing. Crackerjack's ad preceded Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours of practice" theory in his book Outliers by decades (I never would have practiced like that for anything anyways), and I didn't know at the time that it might have been helpful to weigh 50 pounds and have a Romanian gymnastics coach. I just thought you were born with extraordinary talent. What I wanted to do as a kid was watch TV, play with my friends, swim, and read a whole lot. But who got to be a Crackerjack kid for reading a lot? Nobody. But you might get a certificate from the library. (Maybe that's why when I was in second grade, I decided I wanted to be a librarian. That didn't work out.)
Fast-forward to college. I love history, and make it my major. I get a teaching qualification so I have an excuse to study history. We are in a recession when I finish graduate school with a second history degree. And after working in a group home with disabled adults (I loved it but couldn't support myself on it) and very successfully holding down a night job as a drunken barfly, trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing, I got my first job in ad sales. That's what was on offer at the recruitment agency, and I grabbed it. It was a history magazine—close enough.
My resume is like a 19th-century traveling salesman's covered wagon: There's a little bit of everything in there. Writing? Check. PR? Check. Editing? Commissioning? Outreach guidance worker? (Yes, seriously.) Check. Check. Check. TV and film. Architecture. Travel. Alcohol. Business and productivity. Technology. The refugee crisis. Syria. Global warming. Cancer research. Financial inclusion. I sometimes feel like that granddad who bores the pants off everyone at a dinner party because he's got something to say about everything.
And for a very long time, I thought this hodgepodge was a weakness. I wasn't an expert in anything. But then the internet and smartphones showed up. And now we've all got to keep swimming, like sharks, or we become obsolete, at least in my field.
So where do I want to be five years from now? (Yes, someone actually asked me that in an interview. Nil points for originality. I resisted the urge to reply, "Paying the fecking mortgage, mate.") I don't know. And I have now (mostly) made peace with winging it—or at least I've learned to live with the uncertainty. I bought a copy of How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell, to see what he has to say on the matter. The 16th-century French philosopher was frank, and I like frank. I'll share what I find out.
But as I said last night to my daughter's friend, who displayed her artwork, which explores her own existential crisis, at a beautiful exhibition put on by high school seniors, "I completely relate to everything you did here. It's okay to feel like this—it took me this long to figure that it's okay." She replied that she felt relieved that it wasn't just her. I hope she realizes that there are millions of us.
So, here's what I've learned so far: