When I got to know Emilie and she started telling me about Puttylike, I went through the usual stages of “how could that possibly work?” “who are these people?” and ended up at “this idea is really interesting.”
Several years back, I was laid off (temporarily, it turned out) from my corporate job. The severance package included career counseling, which began with a “personal inventory” test. The counselor looked at the results with a slight frown. “I am not seeing any peaks of particular interests.” She studied the results a beat more. “It seems to be because you’re interested in everything.”
And that is what I think of when I think of Puttylike.
While Emilie is clear that this endeavor is open to all ages, I can’t help but notice that most of you are several decades younger than someone who qualifies for the senior discount. Perhaps seeing a range of possible paths through life, with the pitfalls and satisfactions of each, can be useful as you review your own options. I thought I’d share how being “interested in everything” worked out for me.
After that sheltered workshop called “college,” I set off in the direction I was supposed to go: to graduate school. Not fun and no hint that it would get better. When I had the chance to ditch it in favor of joining my boyfriend on a commune, the choice was easy. It was the ‘70s and we got to do that sort of thing.
I ran naked in the sun, learned about organic gardening, and got to know chickens and goats. The people were pretty fascinating, too. I learned lessons that came from another universe than college, lessons about tolerance, diversity, honesty, and experimentation.
But a year was enough. I ran out of patience with stoners and ran out of money. I found a job certifying people for food stamps and then welfare. God knows it was educational—another antidote to an expensive education. It was not, however, a job that offered much in the way of personal growth. I was ready to move on after a couple of years.
So I became a zoo keeper. It wasn’t easy to get there, but I persisted and it was my dream job, working in the zoo’s nursery with baby animals. We raised lion and tiger cubs, ruffed grouse, mandrill monkeys, owls, blackbuck, a hippo… Exotic animals, fun volunteers to supervise, research projects with scientific articles to write, a direct role in conservation: my college and commune skills and my passions came together.
This job provided the health insurance, essential as two babies came along. But the zoo job dwindled, the conservation focus turned out to be mostly illusory, and no new growth points survived an indifferent management. Trapped by steady pay and health insurance, I started to panic. The last four of my 12 years in that job were not pretty. All that kept me going was volunteer work with the local Audubon Society chapter, where I served on the board and learned a tremendous amount about how organizations function, a grounding that served me very well in my next act.
Which was a complete career switch to that corporate job. A prolonged, wrenching switch, to become a technical writer at a computer in a cubical. And it turned out that I was fine with that. One of the great things about “being interested in everything” is that you can enjoy, for example, accounts payable software. No, really. It’s like a puzzle or a maze… Oh, never mind.
But you might believe that there was zero overlap between the zoo job and this job, in both pluses and minuses. The new job had no connection with animals or conservation, but I liked crafting useful instructions, learned programmers are great people, and loved being appreciated. The money didn’t hurt, either. I had Little League uniforms to pay for.
Pulling it all together
That career ended and at last I’ve figured out a way to pull all the pieces together. I write zoo mysteries. I get to go back to the parts of the zoo world that I loved—the animals and the keepers, weave in conservation issues, and have the fun of shaping a world and a story with words.
Looking back, I see that in each of my diverse jobs, I employed my interest in people, love of writing, and focus on the greater social good. Best of all, I could usually connect the work to something I was interested in. If not, I moved on.
I’ve decided my totem animal is the raccoon. A friend studied them for her master’s thesis and told me, “Everyone thinks they are really bright because they can open garbage cans and so on. They aren’t that smart—they just try everything.”
You, young(er) multipotentialite: What’s your totem animal and why?
(Post your answer in the comments by Friday, August 10. Best answer wins an autographed copy of Endangered, my latest zoo-dunnit.)
Ann Littlewood created Finley Zoo, where zoo keeper Iris Oakley uses her animal knowledge to investigate murder. These “zoo-dunnits” are grounded in Ann’s 12 year career as an animal keeper at Oregon Zoo. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with a husband and a hairy little dog. She’s active in tree-hugger organizations.