One facet of human nature that fascinates me is the idea of destiny. Now when I say destiny here I don’t mean like some blockbuster movie in which I am destined to save the princess, fulfill the prophecy and become the most benevolent leader of mankind. I am talking about something more fundamental than that. What some people might refer to as “a calling”. And maybe not even in the sense of a career only, but rather one’s passions, one’s nature. It is not too surprising that I am reflecting on that, because as I watch my son, I wonder what he’s going to be like. What will his interests be? How will he want to live his life and how different will that be from me or his mother?
The nurturing influence of parents cannot be overlooked, but we’ve all known people who were vastly different from their parents in some very fundamental ways. Two parents might be very messy and their child is neat. Two parents might be teachers, and their child wants to run his own business. Of course trying to determine why somebody ends up the way they do is a fool’s errand in a lot of ways, because nurture is not just a function of parents, but of teachers, friends, relatives, society, etc. It could be that one day a kid sees a fancy car that he just loves and says to himself, alright how do I get a job that allows me to drive around with that. Perhaps not the most noble of callings, but he we like shiny things that enhance our status and so these kinds of things certainly happen.
For most of my life I thought I had a calling to be a meteorologist. I’ve loved storms since I was a small child. I would get up in the middle of the night to watch the lightning. In grade 6 we learned about different clouds and how they could tell us about the weather that was coming our way. I was fascinated by this and remember feeling hooked by it. I wanted to learn more about clouds and forecasting. In grade 8 our science class was a full year and broken up into 3 parts:
astronomy, meteorology, and geology. I loved all 3 of those and at the time they had us thinking about careers, but I was already hooked on meteorology and I decided then that I was going to be a meteorologist. During my undergraduate I decided that being a forecaster wasn’t for me and wanted to teach it so I went to grad school and I loved it and don’t regret a second of it. At the end of my undergraduate I took a linguistics course and I loved it. At that time I questioned my career decision a little, but it was my last year of undergrad and it seemed too late to do anything else, and what did it matter, I still loved the weather. I do think that I would be just as happy if I had chosen linguistics as a career had I been introduced to it earlier in life. Now my interests lie in cognitive science and neuroscience. I could definitely see myself being a researcher, or even a clinical psychologist because I am deeply interested in understanding others and our nature, and feel I have some aptitude in understanding the motivations of others.
Despite these ponderings on alternative careers, I still don’t have any regrets. I enjoy my job, and perhaps being a professor is the reason I have had time to pursue these other passions. But it has led me to some questions about this idea that I was somehow “destined” to be in the atmospheric sciences. Would I still have become what I became had I not lived in a climate that did not have thunderstorms? What if our curriculum in grade 6 did not include learning about clouds? What if the grade 8 science curriculum didn’t have meteorology which helped me appreciate the subject at a greater depth and attract me to it even more? What if I had a mother who was afraid of storms and that made me afraid of storms? Yet my choice to go into meteorology seems beyond these things. We had lots of subjects in school and with some good teachers. Why didn’t any of those subjects arouse a passion in me? My parents were not scientists, teachers, historians, writers, etc. and it seems that they didn’t influence me in any particular academic field so I could have chosen anything. In terms of time, we spent more time learning about many other subjects than meteorology. There are rocks everywhere and I had been to the Rockies, so why didn’t I go into geology? I loved watching nature shows so why didn’t I become a biologist? Why did I feel I had a “calling” when I meet so many students who aren’t even sure what they want to do? Is this a rare feeling? Or do other people feel it and just ignore it?
I don’t know that I have an answer to any of these questions, but what I do know is that I was very fortunate. I’ve seen many students with a passion for meteorology but very weak quantitative skills, having weaknesses in math and physics that forced them to take a different career path even if their interest remains. I do not have that problem. I am fortunate by circumstances having parents who worked hard for me to give me a chance to pursue my passions. I wonder how many people feel this “calling” towards science, the arts, humanities, history, education, etc., but simply must take a job as soon as possible to support a family. Maybe they can’t afford to go to school and don’t want to take out student loans. Some people might argue that their “calling” is perhaps not that strong to drive them, but there are practical realities that must be adhered to and when basic needs must be met they simply must be taken care of first. Somewhere there are people who could have been brilliant athletes with enough training and leisure time, but instead had to work in a factory to support their family. How many geniuses have simply died of starvation? How many talented artists have died of curable diseases simply because they couldn’t afford a doctor or the vaccine that would have save their life, or a doctor or vaccine simply wasn’t available?
In the end I don’t think I subscribe to this idea of destiny, because whatever natural passions we have, they must be cultivated, and even those passions may fade slightly as new ones take their place. In the end I can only be thankful for the natural gifts I seem to possess and the family, friends, and society that has allowed me to develop them.