I met an awesome student (one of many) at a college fair last week. She was really nice and seemed like a great fit for our school, so I asked her what she was planning on studying to see what types of programs we could offer her.
“Paleolithic painting,” she said.
For a split second I thought she might be kidding (and after speaking to a student in full pirate garb earlier that day who wanted to study Treasure Burying 101, I left room for humor), but I could tell by the look in her eyes that she was 100% serious. She wants to be a paleolithic painter.
So I asked her what that job entails (making paintings of fossils for books, museums, etc) and who offers a program for it (one school: Cal Berkeley). Then I asked her why? What made her want to be a paleolithic painter?
She said that she had always liked art, but when she got into drawing dinosaurs, it was a game changer. She loved dinosaurs. (At this point I was holding back multiple Ross references.) And she really wanted to paint them, and their bones, for the rest of her life. It wasn’t just a passing dream, either; she had contacted museums and talked to artists who do this for a living and figured out a semi-linear path to getting where she wants to go with her career.
So I skipped most of the admissions stuff, and all of the practical stuff, and told her the one thing I felt she needed to hear most:
I can’t imagine how many voices of “reason” this girl has talking at her in the opposite direction: You should study something practical, like business, so you have a degree to fall back on. You should stay closer to home so if it doesn’t work out at Berkeley you aren’t all the way across the country. You should at the very least prepare to be a traditional artist and then hope that someday, after a lot of hard work and a long wait, this paleolithic painting thing comes to fruition.
But I couldn’t join those voices, because I could see that she really wanted this, and in some ways I personally understand the risk she’s taking to follow her dream. So I threw away the conventional advice and just told her the truth.
I told her that it was going to be really hard. She is choosing a career that has an extremely small niche, and it’s going to be nearly impossible to find the job she’s looking for. I told her that she might not get a lot of support, and that she’d probably want to quit when the going got tough, but that if this is really what she wants, she shouldn’t. I told her about what Roberts could offer for her (which was a lot, actually) if she ultimately decided that Berkeley wasn’t for her. But I told her to put everything she has into making this dream happen and to never let her passion burn out. I told her to put all of her eggs in this basket: be a paleolithic painter now. Not on the side, not someday.
Because I’ve learned this year that if you don’t have a backup plan, if Plan B doesn’t exist, you have to find a way to make Plan A work. You have to keep tweaking it and adjusting the course until it eventually leads you where you know you need to go.
And isn’t that what you really wanted in the first place?