*By Mohamed Kimathi*
He meditated on the use to which he should devote that power of youth which is granted to man only once in a lifetime: that force which gives a man the power of making himself – or even, as it seemed to him – of making the universe into anything he wishes: should it be to art, to science, to love of woman, or to practical activities? It is true that some people are devoid of this impulse, and on entering life at once place their necks under the first yoke that offers itself and honestly labor under it for the rest of their lives.The Cossacks, Leo Tolstoy
It is not with glee that I write I am among the lot that Tolstoy describes: those who devotes themselves to whatever yoke that presents itself. I neither chose my vocation (in the sense of sifting it out from what I can do, can’t do, won’t do, might do and will never-ever-do-so-help-me-God), nor did my vocation choose me, if such a thing is possible. As I was being trained in this vocation of mine, I discovered that it’s not half bad and that I am not half bad in it either. Yet all along something was off: I did not feel connected, so to speak. I consoled myself that if I’m not doing what I love, I can teach myself to love what I do and hopefully escape the misery and drudgery that not a few men find in their work. Fortunately I did not need to keep up the consolation long, for I soon found a purpose, after helping a man with a certain problem and watching his face get transformed from a miserable one to one bubbling with joy: he told me he wished he could put me in his pocket and walk everywhere with me. But enough about me. What needs must motivate and guide a man in choosing his career? Money? Aptitude? Is love enough?
A few days ago I was at a barber’s. I admit there is nothing extra-ordinary in that: a man very often does go to a barber. But this particular one welcomed me into his shop so warmly, so humbly; that I felt like a king. He pulled out a chair for me and bid me sit, all the while beaming at me a smile so charming I couldn’t help but be disarmed. As I sat, he wrapped around me a cloth scented with sweet lavender so gently, it was like a butterfly landing on a rose petal. Then he began shaving.
One could clearly see that he was a man who loved his work, for he got to it with a sharp concentration, the muscles on his face and arms were taut from his absorption in his work. Yet he did it all wrong. He shaved where I did not wish to be shaved and barely touched where I wanted all hair gone. My wonderful hairline he completely disregarded and pushed too far in, I ended up looking like an owl. My glorious sideburns he did away with. My mustache he trimmed to a ridiculous height and my goatee he transformed into an awkward shape.
In the mirror behind me, I could see that there was a large mound of hair at the back of my head. This, combined with his pushing my hairline far in, made my head look like a windsock on a windy day. Looking in the mirror, I compared his skill to his charming manner as I walked into his shop, and, alas, the latter was a hollow mockery of the former. It is easy to imagine many such scenarios. Thus a cook will put all his heart to his cooking but his food will be nom-nom-leathery. Thus a programmer will sweat his heart out typing and debugging, but the fruits of his labor will look shriveled and dull. It seems it is not enough to merely love one’s work. Yet let us consider the other side of this matter.
My doctor is a rough man, to say the least. He is like a man without a conscience. To look at him work, one would think patients pay for his roughness. For he’ll not stick a needle into your arm or thigh or backside, except he’ll push it in so deep, a tear will escape your eye. Neither will you tell him your shoulder hurts except he will lift your arm, twist it around, drop it like it’s hot then ask you if showered that morning. While you sit at a chair so small you’re more perched than seated, he’ll stare at you behind his glasses so hard, you’ll feel he can see your very sins.
Tell him about your pain “down there” and he’ll fire at you a fusillade of questions so awkward you’ll want to get up and run. Yet be patient still. For despite his roughening you up, he’ll fix you so thoroughly you’ll not think of seeing another doctor but him. At first he seemed like he does not care two pence about his work and that he’d sooner be out begging in the street, only he has a family to support and medical-school loans to pay. He seems the type that goes to school to get a job to get money so that he can pay back the money that he borrowed to go to school. Yet let him treat you and you’ll patiently bite the bullet in your next visit. For what he lacks in good manners and love, he makes up for in skill. My barber makes me suspect that love for work is not enough. My good doctor confirms it.
What to do then? Quit working altogether? Certainly not. Dear me, how did I get myself into this awkward position? I began writing about what needs to guide a man in choosing his career, but, alas, I got carried away by tremendous trifles. Let me end here then, lest I get lost further. In choosing his career, let a man be coldly discerning. Let him not be guided purely by them that preach their gospel of putting one’s money where one’s heart is, for that organ is not always sensible. A man should not choose his work for the simple reason that it feels right. Certainly, he should not chose what does not feel right. Let a man be practical in his choosing: reasonable and just a little sentimental.
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