A recent New Yorker article summarized the three stages of the American immigrant experience:
- First Generation: work hardscrabble jobs, sacrifice for children’s education
- Second Generation: academic achievers pursue professional careers in medicine, law, finance
- Third Generation: take Improv classes
I found this a concise way of capturing the internal tensions we all struggle with to some degree: on the one hand, we seek financial security, and making our parents proud is for many a personal or cultural imperative.
Yet the idea of a life spent in the passionate pursuit of ideas, forging new relationships, expanding different skill sets and creating new art is also inherently appealing.
I’ve never wanted to be a doctor to the exclusion of all other identities. I envisioned a life that had room for a multi-faceted individual who was able to pursue different interests while raising a family. I love emergency medicine, but I always knew there would come a day where I’d want to pursue a second act. Leading an unconventional life is guaranteed to invite criticism from traditionalists.
What if the Renaissance thinkers dealt with similar pressures? Da Vinci was an artist and a scientist, and his pursuits in the one enhanced his accomplishments in the other. But did his mother see it that way? I can imagine Da Vinci’s mom preparing her son a nice pasta dish as he relates his latest enthusiasm to his parents:
Mom: My boychik the painter, come sit and tell me all about meeting the Pope!
Leo: Ma, I’m not painting right now. I’ve designed a flying machine!
Mom: That’s nice, dear. Maybe later we can stop by and visit the widow Scolari’s cottage. She’s about to put it on the market, and while it’s a fixer upper, it’s in a neighborhood with a very good school district. Your last commission is probably just enough to afford the down payment, and you can never think about these things too early!
Leo: The machine will have a rotor that spins, lifting the person inside it up into the air!
Dad: (Lifting an eyebrow skeptically) Leo, there will never be a market for flying machines. Take your head out of the clouds and go back to painting, son. Painting offers job security that I never in the marble quarry!
If this sounds eerily like your own family conversation, perhaps you can take solace in the company of the nonconformists who came before you.