There are Alternatives

I’m simultaneously happy and scared to death when students at my university contact me to let me know that they have read my blog. Happy, because the main purpose of this blog is to document my path in life, which hasn’t been the most conventional. Scared to death, because maybe they will believe something I say is “true” or represents “the right path”. I lay no claim to truth, and I don’t think there is a right path. But there are many paths, and a bunch of alternatives that are not discussed by many career councilors or academic advisors.

Riding the Lewis & Clark trail in the summer of 1979. Photo by Dennis Coello.
Riding the Lewis & Clark trail in the summer of 1979. Photo by Dennis Coello.

The photo above was taken by my buddy Den Coello, an amazing person who combines photography, history, and a love of bicycling into some great books, photos, stories, and magazine articles. We were riding the Lewis & Clark trail on our bicycles with Den’s wife Bopsy and friend Vicky. We took the return trip from Astoria, Oregon and ended at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. It was an unforgettable 45 days and 3000 miles.

This bicycle trip came after my first year off of college, which I spent traveling and working odd jobs to pay for things like bicycle trips. It came before I went to college for one year, to be followed by learning shoe repair during another year off, returning for a second year, followed by dropping out again to learn saddle making, marrying my wife, working as a saddle maker, and having children.

These were the years that most of my academic colleagues and friends were hitting the books, earning the degrees, getting into great graduate schools, and launching successful careers.

Some of the students who have talked with me after reading my blog have told me stories about how much their parents want them to go to medical school (most often), but it is clear to me that they either don’t want to do it or at least need a break. This is where I get scared to death, because I can point to what I’ve done and make sense of it. I also have enjoyed almost every step that I’ve taken. However, I also think to myself that the world is different now than it was when I graduated from high school in 1978. We didn’t have internet. I had just missed the draft for the Vietnam war by a few years, something that really did weigh on me in my early teens. Somehow things didn’t seem as competitive then, but perhaps it was just my perspective (not a lot of people were competing for jobs as a saddle maker even then…).

So the bottom line is that I am still scared to provide “advice” to young people who happen onto my blog.

Today, I heard an interesting episode of the Ted Radio hour on NPR called the “Next Greatest Generation?“. One of the people featured was Charlie Hoehn, a young guy who talked about “Free Work”. You should listen to his ideas and read his blog, but the short summary was that after trying to go through the traditional routes of establishing a career, he realized that a lot of it was a complete waste of time. He started contacting interesting people to offer to work for free. These were not internships or advertised positions. He just decided that he wanted to do fun things and realized that they might lead to new opportunities. When I heard the his story, I realized it was exactly what I did back when many of my peers were getting their degrees. There was no advertisement on the door or in the paper when I got a job as a shoe repairman. I just walked in and told Wayne that I thought it sounded fun to try. (He even paid me!) When I heard about a saddle maker outside of Santa Fe who sometimes taught people how to do it, I contacted Mr. Ginder and worked for a year as an apprentice. (He didn’t pay me, but he gave me a great gift!)

I’m happy that I learned about Charlie Hoehn. I’m sure there are more like him out there. Now I can feel a bit more confident about telling young students that there are many alternatives in life that are being tested by folks today just starting off in their careers, and not all of them lead through the ivory towers.



Author: edisonleatherworks

I'm a biochemistry professor and leatherworker who likes bicycles, travel, art, education, and music. Walking is my favorite form of transportation, and I regularly practice Tai Chi.

2 thoughts

  1. I’ve watched pieces of THE BEACH recently on HBO and it reminded me of the time I spent in Japan amidst various groups of backpackers, ex-pats, and the like. Your piece reminds me of those times, which I sometimes look back at as the “sowing wild oats” phase of my life.
    I firmly believe, as you do, that having that walk-about time is such an important part of a person’s life whether they are going to continue to be a “creative type” in life (in which case, this journeying fuels the imagination) or end up in a more “traditional worker” setting (in which case, I imagine one needs to have these adventures even if just to remember them fondly from behind an office desk).
    But I also agree with you that the world is also different. As a parent, I want my child to have that adventuresome spirit, but also wonder if that means I’ll be the foundation subsidizing or fundraising for all these adventures. (I’m sure my folks wondered the same thing about me). In any case, it is certainly one thing to remember MY adventures, another to wish it FOR my daughter, just as it’s one thing to look back at what I did and where it led me and another to wonder how it will be for my daughter to do her own walk-about. But hey, right now she’s 7 y.o. and I’m still wondering what her first heartbreak will be like and how she’ll deal with that.
    All in good time.

    1. Jay: Very well stated. There is a part of me that wants all young people to explore and take risks. But when I became a parent I also wanted to protect my kids from heading down the wrong path. Katherine and I both breathed a sigh of relief when our daughters graduated from college in 4 years and passed our ages when we got married and had kids without kids of their own. On the other hand, I would not have done anything different, and my own twisted path is a constant source of richness in my life. Being a teacher is much like being a parent, and I have similar concerns about steering young people into paths that won’t work. However, many standard and conventional paths don’t work today, so maybe it is time to explore alternatives…

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