When I was around 17, my father gave me a piece of advice.
I didn’t know it at the time — sitting there waiting for the traffic signal to change at the intersection of the Martha Mitchell Expressway and Blake Street in Pine Bluff, Ark. — but the brief admonishment would have profound consequences for my life.
While we sat there waiting for the light, my Pop told me that he didn’t care what I did with my life. By this he didn’t mean he was disinterested or indifferent. Rather, he was giving me the emotional permission to become my own man, to chose my own path.
He continued by saying that while he didn’t care what I chose to do “when I grew up,” I should pick something I loved so much that I would do it for free. Better yet, I should pick something that I would pay for the privilege of getting to do it. He told me if I would just live by that one rule, I’d have a good life and I’d spend it doing something I loved.
I spent a long time trying to figure out what that something might be. I’ve worn a lot of hats. I’ve amassed an odd collection of college degrees and callouses in the process.
“Desultory” is a word that occurs to me when trying to describe my route. While I wasn’t as aimless as that term implies, I was without a core purpose — a code.
In the most recent career path change, I quit a perfectly good job and ran off to graduate school. It took three years, but I got my doctoral degree in criminal justice. I had graduated from one of the best schools in the country, and my dissertation had won the university prize.
I was all set to become a shiny new assistant professor at some lucky college. A series of unpleasantries unfolded that kept me from taking that course in the traditional way. I had little choice except sulking home and trying to pick up the pieces.
Those were hard months. I was never very good at putting on a brave face. I was more unhappy than at any time in my whole life. I had almost gotten to do the very thing I was positive was going to fulfill my father’s advice.
I scraped paint on our old house. I wrote for the newspaper. I worked in the yard. I taught classes online. It wasn’t the triumph I had imagined. The apparent success in school became an onerous millstone of unfulfilled promise.
I had a lot of time to fill. I started writing chapters for a project that would become my first book. When that was done, I wrote another book. I wrote a series of chapters in other peoples’ books. I got two more book contracts.
Before long, I realized something stunning: I had published almost a million words; and had gotten paid to do it.
On the heels of that revelation, I remembered my fourth-grade self. I had written a little illustrated book and sent it to Random House publishing. In a couple of months they returned it with a gentle note. It read in part, “Keep writing and someday you might just have a published book on your hands.”
Anybody who knows me knows I have had a lifelong love affair with words. As a child, it separated me from the world. When you’re 8 and you know words your teacher doesn’t, it’s no longer cute. It was never cute among my peers.
Love them as I did, I didn’t know what to do with these words. Mostly, I used them to be a smart-aleck.
I spent nearly 40 years running from them. Now, they are again what they once were: my love and window on the world. Yet again, it appears the old man was onto something.
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org