All hail the jacks – why it’s ok to fail at achieving your dream career

It’s 2013 and I’m in a well-loved pub in Sydney when I stumble upon a group of people who don’t look old enough to be out drinking on a Thursday or indeed any other day. They are all just 18, still in school with the HSC looming and I can feel the fear and anxiety radiating off them.

I’m almost 25, full of fermented yeast, and have a sudden rare confidence in my understanding of the world. So, in the grand tradition of weirdos in pubs everywhere, I go on a rant.

It was long, it was full of swear words, and it boiled down to this: You are allowed to be interested in more than one thing and the idea that you have to choose just one and choose it now is essentially bullshit. By the end I was yelling bumper sticker worthy positive affirmations and at least two of them were in tears. The teenagers thanked me quite emotionally, we hugged and parted ways. I think about them a fair bit; they would be in their early twenties now with the HSC long behind them. I wonder how they’re doing and, honestly, I wonder if they’re okay. And mostly, I wonder why, at almost 29, I’m still desperately struggling to take my own advice.

I often tell people, with more than a healthy dose of self-deprecation, that I’m a jack of all trades, a master of none, someone who can do a lot of different things but who isn’t overly competent at any of them. This tends to come up when they hear all the jobs I’ve worked over my life coupled with my seemingly contrasting interests. There’s no obvious or direct path hidden within my working history so unless I tell you what degree I did, you can’t really tell what I was trying to be. When people seem interested in my disparate interests and past professions I respond with embarrassment. This discomfort comes from an age-old idea that what we do defines who we are.

Despite the fact that almost none of us are going to own houses, the job market is a complicated nightmare even if you’ve got an overpriced degree, our planet is quickly becoming a post-apocalyptic hell scape, the government is actively trying to kill the most vulnerable (not to mention the rest of the crushing pressures of late capitalism) – despite all that – we’re still telling kids and each other that ‘to have value, you have to Be Something’. And to Be Something you must be following your one, singular, all-consuming dream and if you’re not, then your life must lack meaning.

This idea that what we do is intrinsically linked to our identities exists in many industries, but in none so much as the creatives. If you’re an artist of any kind that’s Who You Are. So what happens when you give it up or compromise? In my case it was a traumatic reinvention of my identity that took years. I have many friends who have had to give up or reimagine a creative dream and the one thread through all of our stories is a profound sense of failure. We failed to realise our dream and everyone can see it. Now I have no stats to back this, but the discrepancy of people whose dreams have worked out for them versus the amount of people who have had to choose something else must be staggering. Never mind the fact that almost all industries are competitive and demanding, there are too many necessary yet mind-numbing professions for everyone to have their passion realised. Not to mention all of the socioeconomic factors that never let dreaming even begin – it has to be said that it’s a privilege to dream at all.

And how do we judge a dream as being successful? Mostly what we mean is: are you earning money from it? Then, from within the creative world itself comes the idea that if you’re not somehow committing to it full time, if you’re not bleeding for your art, then you’re not a real “artist” and therefore, failing. Unless you’re succeeding in obvious and let’s face it, financial ways, unless you’re Going Places or Doing Things Perfectly, there’s no point doing it at all. There’s little room for a journey when you’re already meant to be living off your destination.

Somehow we must encourage each other to dream lots of little dreams. Why not be a jack of all trades and don’t worry if you never master one, because you’ll be too busy filling your life up with pieces of everything you’re interested in. Hail the jacks, respect the masters but all hail the jacks. If we keep telling people that they must seek fulfilment in one place and only one place – and often it’s their place of employment – then we’re just setting them up for the kind of traumatic identity crisis I and my fellow “failed” artists have had to endure, a dramatic ego death that is not limited to the arts scene. If you only have one dream for yourself you might fall into the trap of only having one idea about who you are.

It’s going to take a lot of unlearning for us all to be okay with not having a Dream and instead finding new ways to define ourselves. I want to learn woodworking and write, I want to start attending more Jewish community events and begin practicing my banjo more often so that one day I might write some songs. None of these things will define who I am wholly, but they’ll all make up parts of myself I can be proud of, even if I never play my banjo outside of my room or make a mess of the first thing I try to build. I am going to be the jack of many dreams and that might mean I’ll never master anything but who cares? I’ll be happy.

Image: Kyler Nixon

Zev Aviv is a genderqueer chicken whisperer and confused Jew. Their favourite things are power tools and weight lifting. Zev has a somewhat regrettable background in performing arts which they can’t discuss without accidentally yelling. Working for various street presses and online arts publications in the past, mostly as a theatre reviewer, only made this yelling louder. Zev has spent the past few years living and surviving, which they’re pretty proud about. Their favourite place to write is in a car on top of Mount Ainslie in their hometown of Canberra. They long to grow a beard.

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  • Jo commented on June 4, 2017 Reply

    Excellent article! As a Jack of all Trades myself I think that is a fine destination. I am at peace but I’m now 56 and the peace is recent.

  • Jenni commented on June 6, 2017 Reply

    Nice work Zev. I really enjoyed this work.

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