Almost two decades after school, I finally worked out what I wanted to be
AUGUST 4, 2007 by Clem Bastow
Until Friday just past, the last time I graduated from anything educational, I wore velcro “hair jewels” and Green Day’s Time Of Your Life featured heavily in the ceremony. (In case those two cultural clues don’t hit home, when I last graduated it was 1999 and I was finishing high school.)
So when I took to the stage to receive my Master of Screenwriting degree last Friday, the weight of the intervening 18 years of life and stop-start study felt as heavy as my XXL mortarboard (“All those brains,” said the regalia helper, which I expect he says to every graduand, as he affixed the trencher to my giant skull.)
I was (almost) 18 when I graduated from high school; to have lived that lifetime twice by the time I worked out what I wanted to study (and, thus, do with my life) was, as the great Darrell Eastlake might once have said, huuuuuuuge.
It was a case of fourth-time lucky, as I am (or was) a three-time university drop-out. To manage to make the degree I finally got a Master’s felt a little like I’d hacked the system, but more importantly, I felt vindicated in my strongly held belief that it’s OK not to know what you want to be when you grow up until well after you’ve become a grown-up.
Though I can’t speak for today’s youth (at 35 and as a teacher I’m now officially allowed to use that term), when I was a teen, the pressure to know what you wanted to be when you “grew up” was ever present. You had to have an idea of your VCE subjects in year 9, choose said subjects according to the university degree you’d study straight out of school, and then fly smoothly into your chosen career upon graduation.
Clem Bastow says it’s OK not to know what you want to be when you grow up until well after you’ve become a grown-up.
This was a walk in the park for many of my peers, who’d known from a young age that it was their destiny to become a lawyer, doctor, physical therapist or teacher. I, on the other hand, was cursed with the sort of scattershot gifted (“gifted”) mind that jumped from dream job to dream job. When I chose my uni preferences, fashion design seemed like a good fit because, well, I was into fashion design at the time. What could possibly go wrong?!
The reality of the course was significantly different, especially for someone whose sewing skills could generously be described as “experimental”. My two sad years of a fashion design BA set me on a tortuous journey, via a couple of aborted TAFE courses, towards eventually working out what I actually wanted to do with my life around the age of 30: screenwriting.
Ironically enough, screenwriting was what I’d put in my “In 20 years time…” section of the yearbook back in 1999, but it took me a long time to get back to that place, and to decipher that the wistful feeling I got in cinemas wasn’t, in fact, about wanting to be a movie-star or SFX makeup artist.
This is not some call to drift through life like a Paxton Kid until inspiration strikes; I worked really hard for those 18 years, sometimes at jobs that weren’t the right fit (a unique hell), while I tried to zero in on what my true calling was. I was already a working screenwriter by the time I doffed my cap to the Chancellor on stage last week – the degree was more a moment of recognition of that hard work than a ticket to work in “the business”.
Rather, I hope to encourage those who feel like they’ve made the “wrong” choices, or taken a turn down what seems like a dead-end street, to know that things can change.
Some people write their first novel in their 70s. Some lawyers become comedians. After years of doing jump splits, Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth became a paramedic at 49.
The way our society is geared, towards picking a niche for yourself before you’re even allowed to vote and then charging towards it at 100km/h, can make you feel like a failure if your path towards “what you do” takes a different route.
Education is something that young people are meant to do beforethey become workers (which is why we are all socialised to sneer at mature age students); if you don’t know what you want to be or do by 20 or so, maybe there’s just no hope for you. It’s bullshit.
Further education comes in myriad guises. For me, postgraduate study was the answer, and as a perpetually poor writer I was lucky enough not to have graduated my way out of FEE HELP (“In my day we had to walk barefoot in the snow to get to uni, and we called it ‘HECS’…”).
For others it might be VET, short courses, masterclasses, YouTube tutorials, mentorships or apprenticeships, library memberships, night courses, podcasts, or almost literally any enrichment activity. The important part is just to keep learning, because that’s – pause for huge groan from audience – how we learn who we really are.
So if you, like me, are hovering somewhere around a new age demographic tick-box and you’re in need of encouragement, keep going. After all, if a three-time uni dropout like me can become a Master, there’s hope for all of us.