Studies have identified many factors that contribute to career success, but so far, nobody has been able to build a convincing model to predict an individual's future or how much happiness a certain profession will bring him. In case of doubt, people will opt for the safe choice and this is why you seldom hear career counsellors recommend risky artistic professions that may lead to unemployment.
In case of doubt, focus on what you really want
This sort of routine advice aims at achieving social insertion. Risk is identified as a problem, safety as the solution. However, a career recommendation based on conventional truth is never going to inspire a daring adventurer. In times when the market requires creativity at all levels, a fearful approach might prove fundamentally wrong, or perhaps, it is wrong in all circumstances.
In the year 1820, Bertel Thorvaldsen, an acclaimed romantic sculptor, travelled back from Rome to his native Denmark. Thorvaldsen was then 50 years old and at the pinnacle of his fame. During his stay in Copenhagen, he talked to many aspiring artists, giving them generous advice and encouragement.
One night, when Thorvaldsen returned to his hotel after a reception in his honour, he was told that a boy had been waiting for him all day. Intrigued, Thorvaldsen looked around the hotel hall and found a poorly dressed kid asleep on a chair.
A long waiting time
He walked up to the boy, shook his arm gently, and whispered to him: "It is late, kid, go home." Startled, the boy opened his eyes and jumped to his feet. "I was waiting for you, Herr Thorvaldsen. I have been waiting for you all day."
That must true, thought Thorvaldsen, since the boy looked so exhausted and hungry that he was pitiful to see. "I wanted to ask you for advice on my career," the kid went on. "I cannot decide whether I should become a novelist or a poet."
A heartbreaking tale
Out of compassion, Thorvaldsen ordered a glass of warm milk for the boy and listened to his story. It was a heartbreaking tale. With adolescence, the kid had lost the striking voice that had gained him praise and a small income in his home town, and had joined the thousands of unemployed youth that roamed the streets of Copenhagen.
"This is why I have thought of becoming a writer," the boy explained shyly, taking three ruffled pages out of his pocket and handing them over to Thorvaldsen. Strangely enough, the idea of asking a sculptor for literary advice seemed to fit the kid's pathetic situation.
When you have no chance
Thorvaldsen devoted a few minutes to reading the text and was appalled to see that it contained innumerable grammar and spelling mistakes. It was obvious that the boy had no chance of becoming a writer. Even if it was cruel, it was better that he learned the truth right away, so that he could at least learn a trade.
"What is your name?" asked Thorvaldsen, returning the pages. "Hans-Christian," replied the boy full of hope. "Hans-Christian Andersen." A silence ensued, as Thorvaldsen searched for the least hurtful way to express his judgement.
Leaving your hesitations behind
He stared at Hans-Christian Andersen for a long while as he remembered his own artistic ambitions as a young man, many years ago, but of course, his own situation had been completely different. Thorvaldsen took in a deep breath and shook his head. "Look, Hans-Christian," he began, "I don't know how to tell you this."
At that moment, Andersen nodded and gave the sculptor a crazy smile. That was what he had been waiting for. He was about to hear the words of encouragement that he needed so badly. He was sure that an artist of the calibre of Thorvaldsen would be immediately able to recognize his literary talent and point him in the right direction.
"What do you think, Herr Thorvaldsen, should I become a novelist or a poet?" he asked again, this time full of confidence. Fascinated, Thorvaldsen looked at the kid's bright eyes and realized how foolish he had been. "I have no doubt, Hans-Christian," he answered softly, "that you can become both."
For more information about rational living and personal development, I refer you to my book The 10 Principles of Rational Living
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