A student recently asked my advice on choosing her degree for the forthcoming year at college. She was at a crossroads and had to decide between a degree in screenwriting and something else.
It is always a challenge to advise students about which course of study to follow. There are so many variables – personal circumstances, talent, earning potential of a career, desire and love for it, all delicately and dynamically poised on the scales of local and world economics, politics, fads and fashions.
There is a huge responsibility riding on the purveyor of such advice. Does the student sacrifice preference for security? Does she follow her heart rather than her mind? In the context of the current economic climate, who’s to say, anyway?
I remember asking a similar question of a professor of literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg many years ago. He was a rather eloquent man with a quiet manner about him. He thought about my question for a moment before responding, (and here I paraphrase):
We are either engineers of the world’s body, or engineers of the world’s soul.
The first sort prefers solving external problems. Although there are always exceptions to the rule, such people generally love working with numbers, managing external goals, keeping great physical structures functional and erect. They are scientist, civil engineers, accountants, and the like.
The second group is more inward looking, curious about its motives and the motives of others. They constantly try to make sense of their lives by experiencing the events in them as factual stories – by creating a running documentary of their lives. They are avid readers, often have an almost obsessive desire to explore the meaning of words; they tend to perceive the world through metaphor and idiom, draw on stories to understand the world and themselves. Such people make good lawyers, psychologists, priests, social workers, and, of course, writers.
As I walked away from the professor’s office to mull over his advice, I couldn’t help thinking about the exceptions, about the mixing of categories. Arthur C. Clark, for example, was a scientist and a writer. Stanley Kubrick was a gifted filmmaker with a strong scientific zeal that informed his work. There are many others.
As I continued to think about things it became clear to me that passion for one’s field is important, and although the professor’s separate categories may be helpful, they are also porous, allowing for an exchange of material.
In the end, my decision to study literature, and later, filmmaking, was based on one overriding factor. Inspiration – I enrolled for the courses that inspired me.
Perhaps the student might consider doing the same.
Choose the field that inspires you.