The Talking Moose (thetalkingmoose) wrote,
The Talking Moose

George Paten and Me

About a month ago, a favorite uncle of mine, responding to a Facebook post I made, said the following: "If you find your passion and what you like to do, you will NEVER work another day in your life." I truly wish it was that easy for me -- in fact, I wonder if I ever will figure it out. To best illustrate why, I need to share an experience from 8th grade. During that school year I borrowed Nine Tomorrows, one of Isaac Asimov's early short story collections, from the school library. I didn't fully realize it at the time, but I was at the beginning of a quest to devour as much of his SF as I could. Given his prodigious output, the expedition took the better part of my teen years. In fact, I sometimes wonder how it is I ever managed the time to read anything else. Anyway, like many items I've read over the years, I've forgotten everything about a number of the stories in the book. However, one story in particular really made an impression on me and continued to stand out in my mind for years. No, it wasn't "The Last Question" or "The Ugly Little Boy" (both great stories that deservedly have been anthologized numerous times). It was "Profession."

I wish I could formulate exactly what caused the story to create such an impact on me at the age of 13. Looking back, my best guess is that it probably had to do with the uncertainty faced at the story's start by its protagonist, 18-year-old George Platen. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, "Profession" is set 400 years in the future, at a time when nearly everyone's education is accomplished on just two days during their adolescence: Reading Day and Education Day. On those two dates -- Reading Day takes place when the child is eight years old and Education Day at the age of the 18 -- the individual is taught everything he knows via a process that imprints knowledge onto his brain. As part of the process on Education Day, the person's profession is decided by a detailed study of the individual's brain function and the knowledge to perform that job in then implanted. The conflict in "Profession" arises when George discovers much to his chagrin that he is part of an extreme minority who cannot be taught in such a manner:

"Every once in a while, George, we come up against a young man whose mind is not suited to receiving a super-imposed knowledge of any sort."

"You mean that I can't be Educated?"

"That is what I mean."

"But that's crazy. I'm intelligent. I can understand--" He looked helplessly about as though trying to find some way of proving that he had a functioning brain.

"Don't misunderstand me, please," said Ellingford gravely. "You're intelligent. There's no questions about that. You're even above average in intelligence. Unfortunately that has nothing to do with whether the mind ought to be allowed to accept superimposed knowledge or not." (p. 31)

The rest of the story involves his efforts to convince someone, anyone, that the results are wrong, that he has somehow been cheated and that he should really be a Registered Computer Programmer, a profession that he spent years preparing for by studying it in advance of Education Day. Ultimately he discovers the reason why his mind cannot accept superimposed knowledge, why that makes him extremely special, and what that means for him and his place in society.

Coincidentally, similar to young George and his quest to become a computer programmer, during my teen years, I and most of those who knew me thought I was headed for a career in that general field. I showed an amazing aptitude for learning programming languages (back in those days, it was BASIC, Fortran and Pascal). I don't recall, however, drawing any parallels between myself and George during that time. I was excited about what I was learning and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. However, as a Freshman in college I completely burned on computer programming. My classes become tedious and boring, and my desire to learn anything more about rapidly faded. In response, I changed my focus to mathematics, which seemed like the logical direction to turn given the aptitude I showed in math up until that point. Sadly, I eventually hit another wall there, but by the time that happened, I was now a junior and couldn't afford to become a career college student. The quickest path to graduation and into the workforce dictated changing my major to English Literature -- quite possibly my weakest subject when I was in high school. This unlikely turn of events was brought about in part from my initial love of Asimov and SF in general. Because of it, I took enough literature courses that at the time I realized I lacked the aptitude for a math degree, I already had enough credits to qualify for a minor in English Lit. Flip-flopping the two (I was far enough in the curriculum to assure a minor in mathematics, regardless) seemed like the most rational thing to do at the time.

Unfortunately, by the time I graduated, I was completely unprepared for the job world, and I had no clue whatsoever as to what I wanted to do for a living -- it seems kind of important to know that first before you start making plans on how to get there. As a result, I stumbled into a job as an Executive Assistant, which became my profession for 10 years. When I burned out in rather spectacular fashion and needed to move on to another job, I got something of a lucky break and found employment in the field of IT asset management. In many ways, it was the right job at the right time for me, but I didn't see myself making a career out of it. In fact, as I write this, there's a very good chance that within six months I will no longer have this position thanks to massive restructuring by my employer. Regardless of the long-term stability, I still face a much larger problem: I still haven't figured out what it is I want to do with my life.

Because the comment my uncle made a month ago caused me to recall Asimov's "Profession," I recently reread the story, and that's when I found myself relating so clearly to George Paten. (Just as quick aside, the story amusingly remains a product of its time. Back in the 1950s, it was hard for anyone to imagine computers shrinking to the size they are today, and in one conversation George recalls from his early teens, when he was trying to learn as much about programming as possible on his own, a friend asks him, "Now what's a Programmer going to be doing. Sitting at a coder all day long, feeding some fool mile-long machine." [p. 16]) Like him, I feel like there's no profession for me, despite my best efforts. Unfortunately, the irony is that the solution for George, whom we are told repeatedly is very intelligent, does not work for me; people like him are taught by "cramming in learning bit by bit… the way everyone did it in ancient times." (p. 35)

The difference between George and me is that I do not have an alternative learning track to help me figure out the vocation best suited to me. Looking back at my education, I feel like it would have been better for me if there was something, anything, which really piqued and held my interest. The subject that came closest to it was computer science, and I've already stated where that ultimately led. In fact, at another point in "Profession," George is told something that really seemed to apply to my teenage interest in computers: "Surely you know that being interested means nothing. You could be devoured by a subject, and if your brain makes it more efficient to be something else, something else you will be.... believe it, it's true." (p. 28) Furthermore, it would've been helpful if I had obvious weaknesses in other subjects -- I genuinely enjoyed nearly all the classes I took and really got something out of each of them. If I possessed the resources, I could've happily spent years more taking classes in the wide variety of subjects that interest me. Unfortunately, you cannot make learning a profession, and even if I wanted to return to school part-time I continue to lack the necessary resources.

Outside of learning as much as possible about the world around me, the only thing over the years that I've felt was a passion was engaging in writing such as this. I don't even know if "passion" is the right word for it -- I'm just as uncertain about that as my pre-computer-obsessed self was about what I wanted to do with my future -- but it certainly is the one thing I've continued to return to in the fifteen years since graduating from college. Maybe one day I could make a living out of it, but for right now, at least, it's not something I can just turn into a career. I have bills to pay, and more importantly, a son to provide for. So, becoming a starving artist to work on my writing isn't an option at this time. Interestingly, at the end of "Profession" George discovers that he biggest gift that people like him have to offer the world is creativity. I'm not 100% sure, but maybe that's the direction I will need to ultimately take -- assuming that this kind of writing is my passion, I need to find a some way to make it work for me.

Maybe my parallels with George haven't ended just yet.

Source: Asimov, Isaac. "Profession." Nine Tomorrows. New York, NY: Fawcett Crest, New York, NY, 1967.

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