“What do you want to study in college?”
He smiled shyly. He was nine years old, bored at his brother’s college fair.
“What do you want to do with that?”
“…Be a scientist.”
How foolish of me.
I gave him an understanding nod. When you’re nine, the world is huge, packed with endless possibilities. I’ve talked to students who want to be a Doctor and a Lawyer and a “person who does CSI stuff”, all at the same time. “Did you know that medical school lasts for about a hundred years?” Bart Tocci: Dream Crusher.
When you’re nine, the work-world is split into clean categories: doctor, scientist, pilot, firefighter, athlete, mailman, guy-who-rides-on-the-back-of-the-garbage-truck. There’s no research fellows, no aeronautical engineers, no debt built up after a quarter century of undergrad and medical school; only scientists, mechanics, and doctors. Each title as easily attainable as the next.
When I was six, I wanted to be a scuba diver. The thought of finding sunken treasure chests filled with shining gold coins was very appealing to me.
Dad: He wants to do what?
Mom: Apparently…He wants to swim in the ocean and search for buried treasure.
Dad: So…Liberal Arts?
Ms. Perry, my freshman English teacher in high school, made us write an essay about what we wanted to do with our lives. It was based around our current reading, Romeo and Juliet. I wrote about how I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but if I found the right girl, it wouldn’t matter. I would work whatever hours, I would get up at whatever time, I would bite my thumb at whomever, as long as I could come home to that girl. What a romantic.
I remember this essay so well because Ms. Perry gave me an “A”, and my mom was not satisfied with my answer.
“Bart, you don’t really mean this.”
“Mom, I think I do.”
“You don’t want to do a meaningless job just because you like a girl. What happens after you get comfortable with her? After a year or two of marriage when the newness is gone? Don’t you want to do something that makes a mark? Something that you are passionate about?”
(That was paraphrased—my mom would never say newness.)
I was annoyed with her because I was fourteen and she was right. I did want to do something that I was passionate about, but what the hell was I passionate about?
In college, you realize that the world of work is more complex than it seemed before, but you still don’t have a grasp on what it looks like to go to work everyday. The possibilities, while not quite endless, are still vast.
Two big careers were nixed: I wasn’t remotely good enough at hockey to make that work, and the family construction business didn’t attract me. Other than those, the world was mine. I could travel to Japan and teach English, I could move to LA and start a film career, I could be a deckhand on a sailboat and see the world. (I looked into all of these.)
From age nine to the time I graduated, my philosophy on getting a job didn’t really change. I figured that after college the “dream job” would pluck me up, I’d work there for about a month, and then I’d be promoted to the president. I didn’t start applying, or even thinking about work until April of my senior year. (Which, for me, is planning ahead.) Someone will discover me, I thought. It’s only a matter of time.
I applied to Groupon for the position of humor writer; not funny enough, Bell’s Brewery to be a humor writer; not a real position, Herman Miller to be supervised by an asshole; not excited about it. I sent an app to GAP because it rhymed, so it seemed like a good idea. I also had a weak connection at MTV that I was hoping to turn into a job or television contract:
“Here’s my idea: we change MTV to BTV. Bart Tocci’s Visions. We make the whole channel about my weird dreams. What do you think?”
“Um…Mr. Tocci…how would you like to be PRESIDENT OF THIS COMPANY?”
“It’s about time.”
All fell through. I started praying a lot. I was about to start working on a rich guy’s boats, all forty of them, for the summer, then I figured I would move back to Boston in the fall. Instead, I interviewed for the job of admissions counselor at my alma mater. I got it. The world became a little smaller. This was a big deal—tons of people apply, and I was honored to be chosen. I like talking to people, I enjoyed my time in college big time, I like traveling, I’m a huge fan of annoyingly large tablecloths. It felt meaningful.
They asked me to make a two year commitment, which, to me, sounded like a ten year commitment. I did. The world became smaller: I wasn’t going to jump on a sailboat to Bermuda at a moment’s notice, or get discovered by the Ferrari racing team at an F1 Go-Kart race track, or have Gwenyth Paltrow sit next to me on a plane and tell me that she has a younger sister who looks exactly like her and who is looking for a guy whiter than the Michelin man but with an auburn beard. The spontaneity that I imagined life to be like drifted away.
Two years later, I took a regional position with the college in Chicago. I thought, I’ll do this job and I’ll get to scratch the itch of living in a big city. I’ll take Improv classes, I’ll see about graduate school, I’ll make connections, build a great community, and make this my city.
Three weeks before I moved to Chicago, I started dating a girl in Grand Rapids. My thoughts changed as I tried to prioritize. I went back to my ideals from Ms. Perry’s class: My passions are not pinnacle—as long as I can come home to this girl, I’ll be happy. …And did I really want to do Improv? And is Chicago that great? And how can I get back there? My goals shifted to worry over a constant question: if I sign up for that, or commit to this, will I be able to visit her, or will she be able to visit me? The world became smaller.
We suddenly stopped dating. Motorcycle rides, every bar in town, brick oven pizza, dancing, beach-going, hand-holding (not all at the same time); all forgotten after a twenty minute phone conversation. We stopped talking. The first 24 hours, I was bipolar, moving from feelings of frustration, confusion, and regret to freedom, wild optimism, and euphoria.
I picked up passions that I had put down while I was tearing tape to hold our relationship together.
The world became bigger. I keep asking, where do I build my life? Around a job or career? Passions, in general? A girl? How much do you sacrifice for someone, and at what point? Those are thoughts that consume my prayers, anyway.
And here’s where I rest:
“Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” Isaiah 30:20.