The Balance of Heritage and Profession

Growing up in a small town and blue collar family, who did their own subsistence farming at one point, I often find that kind of life appealing. Seems like we will always be in search of that balance, that is, until we decide we’ve pushed ourselves enough and are satisfied.” Matt, graduate student at Stanford.

Like Matt, I grew up in a blue-collar family, away from the big city and educational opportunities.  Our conversation started on remark starting a lecture at the PCS monthly meeting. The speaker told us how,  after falling for the East Side (of the Sierra Nevada, that is), she found herself a job in Bishop, CA. As a physical therapist, desiring to move to an outdoor sports mecca is probably not a very hard goal to reach. But how many medical physicists are needed in a hamlet of 6,000? Tough luck, Desert Tortoise. My chosen profession pays well, but also limits my choice of living location, unless you count the numerous small cities east of the Rockies.

But that’s not all of it. Recently, I have been reading a biography of John Muir. He was not afraid of hard work, and there was plenty of it. He was a talented carpenter, and new his way around a sawmill. In addition, he almost finished a university education. What struck me about John Muir’s adult life was how easily he could move about and travel. He worked one place for a while, saved up some money, and went off to travel. His early time in the Sierra was spent as a sheepherder. His breadth of education and experience meant he could arrive somewhere, anywhere, and would eventually find a job to earn him some money to live by.

My work-life is quite different. I am a white collar professional, salaried, and always have worked “for” somebody. Which is quite remarkable, because I am one of only a handful of people in my family to choose this type of career. The rest are all skilled tradesmen, own their own small businesses, and while not getting rich, have a comfortable life. My Dad tried being an employee for a while, but decided in his mid-40s he had enough and started his own business.

I wonder now why I never bothered to ask him about the financial aspects of this decision. Sure, there were many factors going for him. He neither had to worry about rent, mortgage or business location. My mother owned the rather large farmhouse with barn and adjoining outbuildings in the middle of the village. We did not have to worry about shelter, or setting up shop. In my home country, one also does not have to be worried about health insurance coverage or retirement. The public option is affordable, while not luxurious will provide a reasonable safety net. My education was almost free, aside from $60 per semester for administrative fees and the public transportation ticket.

It is quite different for me. I was very lucky to get into my profession when there was big demand. Having moved far away from home, though, means I have to buy property. Health insurance and retirement is a much larger challenge in the USA. And most importantly, I neither have a spouse nor family to back me up, or bail me out should I fail. My “worth”, meaning my money-earning capacity,  is determined by my boss, office politics, and a lot of external circumstances which are outside of my control. The tradesman or small business owner gets his/her validation directly from the customer, for the goods or services provided. It is a much more direct validation of skill and hard work than seeing a patient treated successfully, who may never know there even is such a profession as medical physics involved in their medical care.

Over dinner last Sunday, my friend Andrea very rightly pointed out to me how I am certainly far from being a professional one-trick pony. I do have several skills which, each by itself, could be turned into a small business or income source. To take this further, having several skills means I could, with some time management, build parallel lines of making money, diversifying my income stream. Point taken, Andrea.

There are skills I am lacking, though. First of all, absolutely nothing in my education has prepared me in the least for running a business. It all was geared toward academics. Well, this is nothing a good library couldn’t help to fix. My second major shortcoming is trust. Trust in my skills, trust in being able to make a living, trust in the world to have customers who would value what I can provide.

As luck would have it, my friends again pointed me in the right direction. I had posted pictures of some of my crafts on Facebook. Several very complimentary comments came in, and one of them contained the question if I sold these items. Now, just recently I had also learned of Etsy. Suddenly, I had found a way to dip my toes in the water without much risk. All it took was a Paypal account, registering it with Etsy, and finding a store name (which, again, my friends gave to me).

There is another business idea in my mind. It is not at all clear at this time if it will ever become reality. I do not even know if my attraction to the work-style of my heritage will ever grow beyond mere curiosity, or if it is just a “the grass seems greener on the other side” moment which could be easily fixed by moving into an office with a window after 15 years spend in windowless basements. I think life will lead me to the right opportunity at the right time, as it always has.

So, as I always have, I will walk through life with my eyes, ears and heart open, always ready for adventure and exploration.

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