‘Go to College and Take Something Technical’

Everybody knows that decisions taken at one point in life can have an impact that stretches far into the future. What you rarely know is when you’ve made one of those decisions. It’s often not until much later that you recognize them.

After I passed Grade 3, which would make me around eight or nine years old, my family moved to Dundas. I had grown up in Scarborough, not far from the Scarborough Bluffs. I think my parents were looking for a better place for my siblings and me to grow up. To them, that included sending me to a tiny private Christian school in Copetown.

This began an often strange, certainly life-altering seven years of fundamentalist Protestant education. But none of that, including what I took in school, was my decision. That is, until the summer before Grade 9, the second-last year I would be there, and the first year we got to “choose” our elective courses.

The reason I put choose in quotes is because it wasn’t much of a choice. As the tradition went, boys were interested in woodworking and mechanics, and girls were interested in cooking and an activity I think might have been called “domestic planning”. Naturally, all the girls took the “girl” classes, and all the boys took the “boy” classes.

If that’s sounds like a ridiculous idea to you – keep in mind I’m talking about ten years ago, not 1950 – then you’re in about the same spot I was in back then. The difference is that you’re probably thinking sexism. I was thinking sex.

Well not exactly, since at that point, I was still fantasizing about first base. I had never had a girlfriend, and neither had most of the guys in my class (when I said the school was small, I meant it – they had only one or two classes per grade back then). So my friend Mark and I hatched a plan. We decided we’d go to cooking class to get to the girls.

The plan worked beautifully and we were soon sporting girlfriends, after overcoming various objections to us attending the class. The only thing I remember making in that class is bannock, but looking back, my decision to take it was a beginning.

Through grades nine and ten, which I attended at the private school, and grades eleven and twelve when I went to a public school in Dundas, my parents and high school counselors had a single message for me about my future after graduation: “go to college and take something technical”.

It was understood that science, business and technology courses at university or college were for smart people who wanted to make money. Trades were for people who weren’t as smart and who were okay with just scraping by (today, the wealthiest, most in-demand people I know are employed in trades). The only thing worse than going into trades was pursuing a “useless degree” in a social science or in something like journalism, which I had said I wanted to take.

Because this was accepted wisdom, as a teenager it seems only natural that I ignored it. I renounced my “choice” to take software engineering at Mohawk College, a decision I’d made under considerable pressure, soon after I graduated.

“Fine”, my parents told me. “Go out and get a job then.”

So I did, washing dishes in a Hamilton restaurant. I’d put the cooking class on my resume. After three weeks, I was cooking behind the line with a guy named Avian, the most irrepressible and irresistible ladies man I’ve ever met (his propensity for adultery ended in tragedy). For the next two years I cooked for a living and drank as a hobby.

After two years I’d had enough. I ended up taking software engineering in Mohawk College, the same course I’d rebelled against when I graduated high school. I didn’t know what to do at that point, but I’d had enough of peeling potatoes and the lingering smell of garlic and fryer oil I couldn’t get rid of.

What I learned at Mohawk has done me well over the years, so my parents’ advice wasn’t so bad after all. But when I look at where I am now though and how I got here, what stands out to me isn’t the technical skills I learned in college, it’s the skills of communication and cooking. My least precious skills are now my most valuable.

In hindsight, it all seems so obvious. The biggest perception people have of people in my field, whether programmers, technicians, or the guy who runs the computer help-desk, is that we aren’t friendly and we don’t communicate. In other words, we have no social skills. The few who do have them have a huge advantage over the many that don’t.

The same goes for cooking. Far from simply a way of making things taste good, the skill of cooking is really about nutrition. Food is, after all, more about supporting life than it is about enjoying it, something we in the West have forgotten. From nutrition to health, one of the world’s most lucrative and fastest-growing industries, is a natural progression, and so companies like Empowered Nutrition are born. Along with a lot of very tasty meals.

So let the specialists keep on specializing, but let the generalists generalize. Learn something social and do something technical, or vice versa. Encourage the impractical and maybe something practical, or valuable, or happy will appear.

You never know what might happen. I’m told the cooking class at that little private school has been co-ed ever since.

6 Responses to “‘Go to College and Take Something Technical’”
  1. Tim:

    I never took that cooking class because by then there were as many girls in the woodshop.

  2. Ade:

    You also don’t like food. Growing up, a running joke in the family was that Tim won’t eat anything unless it’s white, beige, or has tomato sauce on it.

    How he managed to get to the size he is, some 6’4″ if I’m not mistaken, on a diet of crackers, cereal and pizza is a medical mystery. ;)

  3. JD:

    Bang on baby!

    Those stigmas are so pervasive, even in today’s educational system (read especially in today’s …) which is overpopulated by people who followed that stigma and found themselves trapped.

    In a recent interview (one of those moments when I’ve let the family pressure push me) my interviewer did everything but call me a dilletant. In some sense he’s right, I’ve been one hell of a generalist… but I can’t see it as anything but an advantage. Especially talking to some of those specialists who are so blinded to anything outside of their own particular tunnel.

    Historical greats have rarely been specialists… From Darwin to Archimedes, DaVinci to Einstein, a broad human existence is the root of all inspiriation has been the broader integral. Science is propelled by art, art informed by science and it’s all fed by good nutrition.

    So here’s to the renaissance (wo)man, and the rebirth that is ours to bring.

    (Farmers rock! Just think about what the stigmas of poverty or stupidity surrounding farming have done to our food production chain. Not only are they untrue… as farming requires a broad and well develloped skill-set… but they do hugely support the corporate mega-farm paradigm [which is abysmally destructive] pushing the new, bright and creative husbands and wives of the earth into this urban existence, freeing up family farms for purchase by Monsanto and friends…)

  4. nicoleb:

    Anyone who thinks a techie does not have social skills obviously has not “ridden the gauntlet” with you….

  5. wemi:

    or been on the bus….

  6. alevo:

    I thought techies were fat too – but your nutritional savvy has dispelled yet another one of the unfounded stigmas I learned from TV. You go girl.