We are proud and honoured to present this article by our guest blogger Joshua James Parfitt. After travelling the world, studying multiple subjects, daring to follow his passions, he reflects on what he has learned.
“[…] and the esteemed doctor, after twenty years, finally refined his precise technique for putting in the needles […]”
Twenty years. Twenty years! I panicked to myself, sitting at the back of my introductory class to a BSc in Acupuncture, at London South Bank University. The idea of helping people kindled an inner purpose, but the reality that I’d be perfecting finger movements for twenty years before I was any good sounded utterly depressing. Besides, I could barely hold a spoon without spilling my breakfast onto my eyebrows.
The betrayal was like buying a house, only to find that the front door opened straight onto a bombsite. I can’t wait that long to start saving the world, I decided. I backed out of the tuition fees and loans. I freed myself from this cruel trap of time. Free!
That was the late summer of 2013. To put those London-plane-leafed days into context, I had, earlier that summer, dropped out of my second year of university. I was studying music, but I had had an internal argument with the university system: it wasn’t teaching me the things I thought I needed. Sure, I could explain the dynamic relationship of music across the Atlantic triangular trade route, but put me in front of an audience and I’d seize up.
It felt like university was discouraging my dreams. I came thinking that the only conceivable vision of success in music/poetry was to be the guy, on stage, surrounded by the enchanted audience. Looking back, I could have made a more discerning choice of degree programme. But at the time, I was terrified that I’d be wasting a whole year of life (I only had one year of study left) and be no closer to living my passion with poetry.
After finishing my second-year exams, I braved an encounter with a university careers councillor. “I don’t think I like university. I want to be a poet, and this isn’t helping me. I’m thinking I should quit…” Her reply came quick and cold: “If you already knew you wanted to be a poet, you wouldn’t be here asking me.”
It was strange advice, in hindsight, for it baited my fledgling confidence into carelessness. It felt like a challenge. I dropped out immediately.
I quite enjoy reviewing these memories now, from the serene plateaus of 25, but at the time a misjudged afternoon plan felt akin to realising you’ve married the wrong person. I was incredibly dedicated to finding success, and worked some ridiculous hours doing so, but I was also racked with guilt that if I didn’t invest enough time and effort I was doomed to never make it.
The poetry experience ended up becoming a repeating prophecy for the better part of three years. The cycles began an ended in a predictable fashion: become amazingly fascinated by something; buy all of the books; make a huge commitment; become terrified I’ll never make it; run away; repeat. This happened with hip-hop music, gardening, martial arts, and sustainability. All within three years.
Contrary to supermarkets, the abundance of choice is paralyzing. Once a decision is made, our hearts go through a perplexing carnival of joy, jealousy, anxiety, assurance and regret. That’s not always an easy thing to listen to. It’s an incredible privilege to have choice, of course, but it doesn’t guarantee contentment.
I speak to many people now who complain about their jobs, or say: “This isn’t what I want to do.” I’ve known office robots who saw the light and cycled half-way around the world to make sandals from used tires. My grandma passed me a story of some ‘hipster’ who quit the city to carve spoons in the woods. (“Hey! This reminds me of you,” she said.) One of my own parents has a regular corporate job, and yet dreams of fishing trips and kayaking to remote islands for a spot of camping. The arguments for a working life filled with passion and adventure are compelling and drove me to pursue it, sometimes to my own detriment.
Yet I want to tell you why you should not expect to only and continuously be passionate about your line of work. Don’t simply follow your passion.
There, I said it. Let the ripples settle.
Not that I’m a scrooge-type character revelling in the misery wrought by telling a child, “Santa ain’t real, kiddo”, but ‘following your passion’ seems to have become our generation’s ideal, upon who’s altar we sacrifice books, workshops and careers. It’s great advice, in theory, but I don’t believe it works until you’ve calibrated your ideas correctly.
The calibration I experienced happened whilst I was in Indonesia.
Traveling down the cliché-paved path of twenty-somethings going off to find themselves, I won a scholarship to study in Indonesia for a year in 2015 (languages were a skill, but not a passion of mine). Throughout my year there I covered all my essentials for revelation: Motorbike, check; volcanoes, check; spicy food, check. And yet, by the end of the adventurous year was in no way clearer about my career. I couldn’t travel forever. I had gone through more cycles of becoming a bamboo craftsman and a sustainable product designer. (Yes, I very nearly applied to do a new BSc in the UK.) Still I was left none the wiser.
I thought I found an ancient hint in the carvings at the 9th century temple of Prambanan, in Yogyakarta, but when my grandma told me that her village church was about the same age I was struck by a peculiar desire to see if the bible had anything to say about work.
And there, I opened up the bible. Many people reading this may be of no religious denomination, and I was not a believer at the time, but there are many interesting nuggets of wisdom very relevant for our secular world. The bible still finds itself in many popular proverbs and sayings—such as: can a leopard change its spots; an eye for an eye; pride comes before a fall; wolves in sheep’s clothing; and money is the root of all evil—but most interestingly the bible is behind our modern interpretation of the word ‘talent’.
There is a particular parable in the gospel according to Saint Matthew called The Parable of the Talents. It talks about a ‘talent’ as a kind of weight, and indeed if you look up the etymology of ‘talent’ you will find something along the lines of ‘a large sum of money’ or ‘a weight’.
Our modern interpretation of talent is largely due to the Christian theologian John Calvin.
In the 16th century, Calvin reinterpreted the Parable of the Talents, rehousing ‘talent’ from its original meaning to mean a ‘gift from God’—a person’s ‘calling’ or ‘natural ability’. Why is this significant? Well, in the parable, a master puts three servants in charge of his goods. He divides up the talents: five talents to one servant, two talents to another, and the final servant gets one talent. To cut a long story short, the servants who use their talents—no matter how many they have—win.
What I took from this is that we are not created equally in terms of the talents we have. We are often told that we can be anything we want, so long as we try, but I think this parable is saying that we just may not have as many talents (or the same talents) as an accomplished acupuncturist. But that doesn’t’ matter, because we are all ‘good at something’. It might be boring—like tidying our room, or remembering things—but if we can use that talent—as a cleaner, or a secretary— for something we love, then we’re onto something.
When I realised that and I considered using my talents to do something of value to other people, however mundane, a huge weight was lifted off. Its about the difference between being passionate about our line of work and being passionate about what our work achieves. Our accomplished acupuncturist surely needs a cleaner, and a secretary, to help patients through his own talent of precision. It doesn’t have to be me putting the needles in, so to speak. There are myriad ways that one’s particular skills could be a vital service for an acupuncturist.
I think that the famous poet Kahlil Gibran, in his book The Prophet, understood how we glamourise certain lines of work over others. In his chapter entitled Work he writes:
Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, “He who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is nobler than he who ploughs the soil.
And he who seizes the rainbow to lay it on a cloth in the likeness of man, is more than he who makes the sandals for our feet.”
Gibran’s answer is that: “But I say, not in sleep but in the overwakefulness of noontide, that the wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of all the blades of grass”. I think you’d need a good few talents to decipher than one. Perhaps, to make it easier to understand, I’ll turn to a song by reggae singer Chronixx, who croons in Legend that:
On the ocean of fame / I’m an unknown sailor / I’m the percussionist playing with The Wailers / The one with the shaker / The mover and shaker / My name wasn’t on the front of the paper / But me no cater / Much more than the worker / The work is greater
I suppose this last line is the crux of my musing. It hit me when I applied for an internship with a renewable energy company Indonesia and they asked me to write success stories for them. But surely the one designing the technology and making the world a better place has the best job! my heart told me. I must go back and study renewable energy. “You have no background in engineering, but you speak Indonesian and can write in English,” they replied. It broke, and angered, me.
For the record, I struggled interviewing people. It’s awkward. I’m terribly fussy and a perfectionist when it comes to writing, but at that moment in time I was the only one who could do it. I cannot say if I have talent, but when my stories attracted new donors, and even a documentary film crew, I started seeing the importance of my work. The ‘talent’ might well be a pain in the arse. You might hate it. But if it’s in service of something greater that is important, then it could be your blessing.
Though I am currently passionate about the environment and envious of accomplished researchers traversing the tropics in search of frogs, there’s bound to be someone who’ll need me to speak Indonesian and write in English for them—most likely at home, boo hoo. But the better I am at these two skills, the better I will be able to help the environment for others to enjoy.
I’m the man who cooks the food / And feeds the street people in the afternoon / I’m the lady with the broom / Sweeping the halls of your sons pre-school / I’m the soldier who’s up all night / Making sure everything’s alright / And if you ask me I’m quite fine / Being an ordinary person doing what’s right
Either way, I’m glad I don’t have to stick a needle in anyone. I just found rice on my forehead as it is.
Pictures Joshua James Parfitt
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