Follow your calling? Or follow your play?

I always figured that my true calling would find me. My Dad is a pastor, and he always talked about being "called" to the ministry. My Mom, similarly, talked about being "called" to motherhood. So in high school, my overachiever friends started to pick their majors and the best college that would help them down that path, but I waited. And when I got tired of waiting, I travelled. Halfway around the world, however, I still hadn't found my calling, and my calling hadn't found me.

Obviously, my calling had to be something that it's possible to be passionate about. Something like music, or art, or drama. Those are the callings that are portrayed as being higher, almost spiritual. You see it in the media. Paganini, who practiced violin 16 hours a day. Coltrane, who played jazz until his lips bled. Van Gogh, and the countless crazy artists who followed him, who stayed up day and night creating and ingested all sorts of substances and finally killed themselves as a final sacrifice to their art.

Growing up in 20th Century America, I was well-off enough not to be put to work in the coal mines (as my Grandpa's older brothers were). The mines might have solved my existential crisis about what to do. As it was, however, I knew from what everybody told me that what I did had to be enjoyable. Of course, my parents reminded me that everything takes hard work. Life can't always be fun. And they really wouldn't mind if I studied business. Or medicine.

So when I went to college, I chose to study film, with a minor in business just in case because my parents insisted. I dropped the business minor after my first economics class. I stuck with film however, since it was subjective and passionate and beautiful, and because I knew nothing about it. I enjoyed the constant challenge of it. I had to learn about f-stops and how to correctly wind lighting cables and how to calculate amps and volts so that I wouldn't set the living room on fire when I plugged in my 3-point lighting. I had to grow the balls to go knock on peoples doors and ask "could I use your garden for my film shoot?" Hardest of all, I had to collaborate with my classmates and choose teams of people who could actually get work done. And somehow, since I always seemed to end up in the director or producer role, I had to overcome my introversion and learn how to manage teams of people.

All through college, film kept scaring me, although I worked hard and got excellent grades. I was the first person to ever get into the major freshman year (accidentally - my advisor thought that I was a sophomore because of my AP credits, so he told me to submit a portfolio and I did). Senior year I got a grant from Gerry Abrams to produce my senior film. But unlike some of my classmates, I didn't work on film outside of class. I wasn't passionate about it like they were. It was just my education, and it was there to define me. "I am a film major," I could say at parties, and people would understand me and know exactly who I was. I could look up my course schedule online and know exactly what classes I had to take in order to graduate and become a film maker. Follow the coursework, and you'll end up with a job. That's what the teachers told us. Every now and then, an alumnus would come back from the real world to warn us that it didn't work like that.

Outside of class I actually had job. And I didn't realize it then, but this was a job that I loved. I had gotten it accidentally. My neighbor Daryl worked there, and in high school, when I had had my senior art show, he ended up buying one of my paintings and hiring me on as his helper. I was working on user experience research for government projects, which meant that I spent hours fooling around on a computer. It didn't feel like a job. I spent at least half of my time doing flash tutorials, making balls jump around the screen and rotate and change color. I even created my own paint program. I remember the thrill when I debugged it and it actually worked. "I am god," I thought to myself. My coworkers were amused, and they fed my interest by giving me books on user interaction and design patterns. I had no idea that you could go to school for this, or that I wanted to go to school for this. All I knew was that I loved it. I figured that if I kept working there, after I graduated maybe I could get a job there.

Unfortunately, I didn't keep my job there. Instead, I went to France for seven months (and accidentally ended up with a French Major and and International Studies Major), and when I got back they didn't need me anymore. So I went looking for another job and found a non-technical position at Penn State's computer help desk. I walked into the managers office, and asked about the position. "Non-technical position?" He asked. "We actually don't have any non-technical positions, only technical positions." I walked out. I was standing in the hallway when I heard him call to me, "Wait!"

I turned around. "Do you have any technical experience?"

"Er," I said, "I've done some flash programming."

"Flash programming? That's technical. You should apply!"

"Oh, ok." I said. So I applied to the technical position.

I was so nervous my first day of work that I was probably shaking. It didn't help that the girl I was shadowing accidentally deleted all of her client's email when trying to switch him from POP to IMAP. The client actually hung up the phone and came to the Help Desk in person to give her and my manager an earful as I cowered behind them.

After the first day, I found that I enjoyed the work. I was surprised to find that I was able to keep up with the other employees, most of whom were computer science majors or IST majors.

In October, my manager asked me to create a website for the help desk. "Could you have something by Monday?" He asked on a Friday. "Sure," I said. I'd never made a website in my life. I put my homework on hold and stayed up two nights working on the site.  I  sliced up a psd file and figured out how to make a working navigation and an RSS feed in HTML and CSS. It wasn't anywhere near standards compliant, and it probably would have validated as "crap" on the WC3's validation tool. I thought it was incredible. I showed it to my manager, who nodded and listed some changes that he wanted. "Could you actually make a Drupal site?" He asked. "I want to make something that I'll be able to update easily." I had no idea what Drupal was, but again I nodded.

And that's how I found my play. For me, it's that godlike feeling after you create a website, or a paint program in flash, or you figure out how to do a cool trick in bash. People always say that they're "not doing what they went to school for" as if it were a bad thing. I think that for me, it's a good thing. School was work, so I thought, as I had been taught by the adults around me, that if I was having fun I was doing it wrong. School taught me to turn fun things, like watching movies, into boring, pretentious things, like critiquing film.

Meanwhile, outside of school I learned to dance with my "work." I edited photos for fun in France. I started building websites as a hobby. I experimented with writing for student papers. I picked up InDesign. 

Nothing is work, but thinking makes it so.