“How could you let him throw his life away?” my neighbor asked. She was speaking of my son, who had recently announced he wanted to major in music, to switch from math and Russian.
“He could be an engineer or a lawyer, something important, but you are letting him major in music? How do you feel about wasting all that money?” My mother asked. “You are letting him throw his life away. Just like you did!” The anger in her voice was hard and sharp.
Maybe you’ve heard that phrase, too–“Throwing your life away.” It sounds dangerous, stupid, harmful. In my son’s case, and earlier, my case, it was what saved our lives.
My son had chosen a path that he had been encouraged to follow. Gifted in math and languages, majoring in them seemed like a good idea. But his love of music emerged when he was in high school, and he wanted to spend his life with the intricacies of melody. I knew from personal experience that unless you follow the path that beckons, the journey will be rocky, harsh, and may well lead you into a personal, barren wilderness.
So when he told me he was interested in music, I was pleased. It was good to know so clearly the path you wanted to follow. He turned in that direction. He threw away many possibilities–the wrong ones. The ones that would have left him unsatisfied, a drone at his work, uninspired. So many mothers told me that he could always have music as a hobby. It sounded like an echo from my childhood. What I had wanted was not important, I had been told. I was a child, and the ways of the world were harsh. I could do art and writing as a hobby.
Times were different then, and obedience to parents’ wishes was part of a good daughter’s life. Art and writing were a hobby, and I blundered down the path of success as my parents saw it for me. It was years till I could “throw my life away,” shed the burden of “should” and “hobby” and create the life I wanted. It was hard, but ahead of me was the steady light of life’s purpose, a sure knowledge that writing and art were where meaning lay.
So when my son knew early that his path was music, I was happy that he was throwing his life away early. The life of someone else’s expectations, of success, of bent and hobbled dreams. He’s doing well in his life, he is bright, has good friends, does satisfying work, makes meaning. What he threw away was a life defined by other peoples idea of success. What he found was his own success. (Oh, incidentally, he’s a success by anyone’s measure, including his mother’s pride.)
It took me longer to throw my life away. I wasn’t as sure of my own mind, my own direction. The compass was there, but I wasn’t as sure in my choices. I didn’t believe in myself as much as I believed that my parents knew best. When I figured out that their advice fit their lives and I would have to find my own path, I threw my old life away, too. And am happier for it.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer and artist. As a life and creativity coach, she helps others discover their life’s purpose, hard as it may be.