One of the things American culture does very well is to appeal to peoples wants and needs and to get them to trade whatever skills they have for money.
So it comes down to a basic choice—to do what you want or to do what pays.
Not necessarily—many people are lucky and get paid a lot for doing what they really want to do. But for many people, it's a choice. You can do what's safe and secure and pays well, even though you may not like it much....
Or you can do what you really want to do.
Yes, but that's easier said than done, because to do that you really have to know who you are, and how you're different from everybody else. And that raises some bigger questions than most people want to tackle.
Once you really start doing what you yourself want to do—start making blue hats when what people are buying are red hats—you're going to become different from a lot of your friends and neighbors. You'll almost certainly make a lot less money. Some people may think you're irresponsible or weird. It means the beginning of a long quest to find out who you are and what kind of work you really want to be doing.
And the ironic thing is that once you really do find out what you want to do, really get your act together, the society will support you. If you really go into yourself, you will end up developing something that there's a need for. No matter how weird it all sounded starting out.
Can you give an example of that?
My favorite is a man I heard give a concert at the YMCA in Chicago in 1954. This guy came out on stage, played a note on the piano, read some stuff out of a book, then he'd play another note. After half an hour of that the whole audience had walked out—and there were only six of us to begin with. At his next concert, he came out, put four radios on the piano, tuned them to different stations, and left. That was the concert.
Now I'll tell you, this guy was as weird as anyone I'd ever known. It was very hard to believe that this madman would ever have a community to support his work, his maniacal ideas of what music was all about. But that man, John Cage, has since become one of the most respected composers and theorists of modern music theory. He's had a profound influence on thousands of musicians and composers.
He let himself pursue his real interest, despite how far-out it seemed in the beginning. He kept working on it and developing it—and a community grew up around him. No matter what you do, if you get good enough at it, a community will find you.
Once you see that, it's much easier not to be tempted by the kind of quick money the society may be tempting you with.
How can you find out what you really want to do?
The only place that answer exists is within yourself. There's no external standard, no teacher who can teach you who you are. There's no one way to get there.
One useful exercise is to write down the things you want to do with your life—the experiences you want to have, the skills and talents you'd like to develop, the kind of person you'd like to be. Then stop doing the things you dislike doing, and start doing the things you really want to do. If you want to be a world traveler, for goodness sake don't take some horrible job to make a lot of money to travel with. Join the crew of a sailing ship. You'll get to travel, you'll learn about sailing, and you'll have great stories to tell about hitting sharks on the nose in the Bahamas.