A few weeks ago my husband sent me an article that he’d stumbled across in the New York Times and thought I might enjoy. The article is about William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, and how his career has grown and changed throughout the decades of his very long life. Zinsser has been many things: student, soldier, journalist, novelist, professor, editor, jazz pianist, and that’s naming only a few. And now, legally blind and 80 years young, Zinsser has embarked on yet another career: mentor and writing coach for novelists and journalists struggling to succeed in the difficult world of publishing.
I found this article incredibly inspiring. There are few people in this world who can truly call themselves masters of any one career or trade, let alone become leaders in many fields over the course of their lives. Zinsser has approached each new opportunity in his life with passion and determination, but also with the curious attitude that when one thing inevitably passes, another opportunity will, also inevitably, arise. I’ve heard people say “When one door closes, open a window;” I think Zinsser might say “When one door closes, open all the windows in the house, plus air out the basement and the attic and poke your head in some wardrobes to see if Narnia is hiding inside.”
As a child growing up in the United States with a loving, supportive family and a passion for learning, I was told again and again that I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up. Astronaut. Doctor. President of the USA! But I don’t think I ever heard that I could be as many things as I wanted to be. When my teachers asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the implication was always that I had to pick one. One career. One profession that would define where I went to school, what I studied, and what the rest of my life would look like. If I became an astronaut, I’d be an astronaut. And then one day, I’d either die or retire.
But that’s not how life happens, is it? Our lives are so many things in so many ways. In my short life there have been long periods of pure clarity followed by months of hectic confusion. I have lived in three major world cities. I have laughed, I have cried, I have screamed. I have made new friends and lost old ones. Our small, beautiful lives shift and change all the time; sometimes as swift as dancing mercury and other times as slowly as tectonic plates reshaping the world. And it is absurd to imagine that our careers and aspirations won’t change too, part of the shifting whirlwind that propels us through life.
At 80, Zinsser is now blind. He can no longer write or read without assistance; his days of jazz performance and lecturing to hundreds of attentive students are likely over. But his life isn’t over. He has found a new way to fuel the fires of passion that have led him from one fascinating career to another. In his Upper East Side library, surrounded by the novels, biographies, and exposes that inspired him in his youth yet he can no longer read, Zinsser imparts his knowledge and wisdom to the next generation of impassioned writers and journalists who come to him for advice and assistance. He has never let old age nor handicap slow him down.
Because who needs retirement when you can keep on living?
Do you know multi-talented individuals who have embodied many careers over the course of their lives? Do you have many passions you would love to someday pursue? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!