The day is Wednesday, August 10, 2016, early morning. I’m on the treadmill doing my usual 30-minute exercise, a time slot which gives me just enough time to catch up on some of my favorite shows with the help of Netflix. Today it’s Parks and Recreation, “The Wall” (Season 6, Episode 14). I’m walking along, giggling as I usually do at the unpredictable lines from April, and Andy slamming into a fence in hopes of knocking it down, because if Kool-Aid Man can do it, why can’t he? But at 17:35, I enter a mind-altering scene. In response to Leslie’s ranting and asking for advice, Ron Swanson shares a seemingly unimportant anecdote. To my surprise, as a result of this anecdote, my whole outlook on my future career changed.
Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is a proud bureaucrat in the parks and recreation department of Pawnee, Indiana. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), director of the parks department, is a man of few words. Having taken his infant son, John, to the office and thus being unable to escape people’s attention to the baby, Ron decides to visit the quiet third floor of the building. Here he finds an opportunity to put to use his love for fixing things. After failing to merge Pawnee and a neighboring town, Eagleton, Leslie visits the third floor to think things through. To her surprise, she finds Ron here. She tells him the more she tries to fix Pawnee, the more people fight her. But she cannot seem to leave Pawnee, even if moving means a bigger and better job.
Ron then shares a story about having just fixed a radiator. He recites all the pieces that needed replacing and says, “By the time I was done, this 100-year-old piece of American-made cast iron was singing like a bird. Now… to most people this story would seem boring. But to me, it was immensely satisfying. Because I enjoy fixing radiators. You like fixing this town, Leslie, you always have. You know it’s an uphill battle, but you love the struggle. I would also add that you’ve already done a hell of a lot to make this town better, and people like this young man here will benefit from your hard work.” When I watched this for the first time, I actually felt the gears turning in my head.
Approaching college graduation, I have been rethinking the path I’ve been on and the path I wish to be on. Realizing how difficult the film industry is, I begin to panic. How much do I actually want this? What if I never achieve the “director” status? Am I going to graduate from a prestigious university only to maintain a mediocre career after years of encouragement from parents and teachers? “Dream big,” they said. “We’ll be reading your books one day.” But what if I don’t “make it” in what I (think I) love? Am I a failure if I don’t achieve my “dream job”?
A professor who subbed on the first day of my cinema class fall semester of senior year verbalized it quite candidly. Paraphrasing, “[From film/TV to Youtube, we glorify people, thinking they’ve made it to the other side (a better side?).” I do love cinema for its artistic and thematic elements, but perhaps the personal appeal derives from my thinking that I was heading to the other side. Ron taught me that there is no “other side.” We are all humans, just treading in place until we find our next move. Take this time on the third floor to accept who you are. It has taken time, but as much as I admire and enjoy the discussion of film and actors’ work, I am still in the process of accepting that I would much rather be watching from a seat in a crowded and darkly-lit theater, with the aroma of popcorn filling my senses, getting lost in a scene, than creating one.
My current state of mind then combusted with what I had just realized. No one really cares that Ron fixed a radiator except Ron, since fixing radiators is what he enjoys doing. He did not get paid to do it, nor did he do it to impress anyone. No one will really care if I am the next Spielberg or Hemingway. What matters is that what I do for a living makes me happy. More broadly, as long as I remain true to my authentic self and find fulfillment in what I am doing, which goes for anything I do in life and not just career-wise, things are bound to fall into place. Ron fixed that radiator because he simply enjoys fixing radiators. He did not get paid to do it, nor did he do it to impress anyone.
Perhaps I am hesitant to stray from a “rad” career because I feel the eyes of acquaintances peering and silently judging. But, as Ron has shown me, the only audience that should be determining our self-worth and happiness is ourselves.
Money was never a concern of mine because what mattered to me was that my career would be a source of happiness and purpose. This was the result of my dreaming big. Reality was never peppered into conversations growing up. The term starving artist always lurked in the background, I was just too blinded by the light of possibility to notice it. Perhaps I was never concerned about money because it was a given: my career would make an abundance of wealth. Reality thinks not.
Why didn’t I think practically? And why did I aspire to do something that had of a seemingly high status? I blame not the people who encouraged me, but the one phrase heard often in the culture with which I have been implicated since birth: “Do what you love.”
Miya Tokumitsu makes a compelling argument in her Slate article “In the Name of Love” that “superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit? And who is the audience for this dictum?” (Tokumitsu). Again, to whom would I be a failure if I did not achieve or even stray from my “dream job”? She later concludes that “Do What You Love” disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is a privilege, a sign of socioeconomic class (Tokumitsu). It is important to acknowledge this privilege of choice, but it is also less than a blessing because this is where my mind wanders and confuses itself, keeping me awake at night until my head is throbbing with panicked thoughts. I worry that my future will not satisfy (my) expectations.
Wrapped up in a generation of social media, I scroll my Facebook feed and see a distant friend traveling to Los Angeles, CA, interning with Comedy Central, posting pictures and soaking up the Cali life. I am envious, sure. Envious of the excitement of LA. But I am not one to take off and move across the country. I am an organized creature of habit, I am a fan of simple, which makes me a Ron-type character. Adventure is good, but moving away from my family who lives on Long Island to live what appears to be a glamorous life on the exterior seems shallow. The millennial-hipster-beanie-wearing-Buzzfeed career sounds fun, but I’ve seen those Facebook images and they just do not match who I am. And I’ve realized that’s okay!
In answer to Tokumitsu’s question of who the audience of the DWYL dictum is, I am. I am because it is my life. You are because it is your life. We must not allow ourselves to perform to satisfy other people’s expectations and standards. I watch films not to escape reality, but to imagine my own life as the characters I see on screen. I have been living my life vicariously, wishing that I was the one experiencing those moments of two unknowing lovers brushing shoulders on the street, a girl just living in Brooklyn but truly living each moment to its fullest, dancing from one apartment to the next, accompanied by a feel-good soundtrack. Walking in place, thoughts swirling in the midst of an epiphany, it hits me:
I do love cinema for its artistic and thematic elements, but perhaps the personal appeal derives from my thinking that I was heading to the other side. Ron taught me that there is no “other side.” We are all humans, just treading in place until we find our next move. Take this time on the third floor to accept who you are. It has taken time, but as much as I admire and enjoy the discussion of film and actors’ work, I am still in the process of accepting that I would much rather be watching from a seat in a crowded and darkly-lit theater, with the aroma of popcorn filling my senses, getting lost in a scene, than creating one. And guess what… I’ve realized that’s okay too!
The metacognition of my experience tells me that I am right where I should be, struggling through each and every thought. Let’s try this together. Wednesday morning, Leslie Knope is treading, trying her best to make a move in her career, but something is holding her back, keeping her in Pawnee. And here I am, treading in place, getting my thoughts together on the third floor. At this time I cannot leave Long Island, something is keeping me here for a reason. As Leslie learns from Ron that she is holding herself back, she doesn’t want to leave Pawnee, I learn that I am keeping myself here. I do not want to leave Long Island. Together, we have coincidentally walked into the realization that not wanting to uproot and relocate just yet is OKAY. I will soon be fresh out of college with a future unplanned. But the struggle is the best part. Life is a movie, and we get to write our own scripts as we go along. Don’t let anyone else write it for you.