When I was graduating from Williams, I had very little idea of what a job was. That sounds naïve but it was true. My parents were academics so, in some ways, I had been in a college setting my whole life.
At Williams, I studied political science and studio art. After college, I decided to work in art museums because I thought they were “public libraries for imagination.” I interned at the Museum of Modern Art, moved back to Williamstown to get an art studio of my own, and then moved back to New York to work at the Guggenheim. Seeing the money side of museum management, I decided to go to business school to better understand the structural levers, like entry level pay in the arts, that I found myself critiquing.
When I went to business school, I wanted to be a museum director. I was lucky to work at the Tate in London the summer between my two business school years – the same summer that the Tate Modern opened. (I worked in business strategy which was physically housed in the old Tate Gallery at Millbank, what is now known as Tate Britain.) The experience taught me that I needed to get more business experience first. I accepted a management consulting job, with some ambivalence. Then the plot of my life forked. Within the span of a month – this was the summer of 2001 – I lost my consulting job before I started it (due to an economic downturn), my father died unexpectedly and, less than two weeks later, 9/11 happened. It was so unsettling that I ended up taking a personal as well as career risk and, a year later, enrolled in an MFA in painting program in London.
Getting an MFA after an MBA was one of the least boring and most uncomfortable things I’ve ever done. (To put that in context, when I moved back to Williamstown to get an art studio, I worked for a few months delivering Colonial Pizza to students, some of whom knew me as a former college council co-president or their JA.)
When I was deciding whether to go to art school, a Williams friend who is now an economics professor asked me whether going to art school was investment or consumption. Did I just want to enjoy two years painting or did I want the experience to build my future? I decided it was investment and went for it.
Ten years later, I have what I would call a “found object career.” Like an artwork made out of objects the artist simply finds and combines, once I had an MBA and an MFA I had to figure out what to do with them. I now teach on the faculty at NYU, and just published a book called Art Thinking, which is about these questions of how to make space for a life of originality and meaning – whatever that is to you – within the constraints of needing to make a living and wanting to do well.
One of the main ideas of the book is that if you are making a work of art in any field, you are not going from a known point A to a known point B but inventing point B. A liberal arts education, like the one you get at Williams, is an act of inventing point B: not of filling the person with knowledge, but helping us all become ourselves when we don’t know at the outset who we will be.
If we are lucky, we get to do the not boring but uncomfortable work of continuing to invent our own point B’s throughout our careers. Even if you choose a well-trodden path like consulting or even medicine, there are constant opportunities to show up to that path with a kind of moral courage toward open-ended possibility and a belief that there are contributions to the world that are yours alone to make.
Those contributions may happen in many different ways. For instance, in the process of writing, I met a woman who gave up being a painter but was then in the first class of woman at Harvard Law School (an art project unto itself in the “inventing point B” sense). Her most creative career chapter happened later in her life when she moved to a small town in Georgia to run the estate of her first cousin, the writer Flannery O’Connor.
I hold out hope that, amidst the reality of patches of career that feel more job-like and work-a-day, we also have others where we have real traction with what we love. Over a long arc, your life is your greatest work of art, governed by these two questions: how you like to spend your days, and what you want your life to count for.
In the time I’ve been out of Williams, I have met so many inspiring fellow alumni of all different classes – the art history major who became the anesthesiologist, the successful litigator who risked going to work for a foundation, the marine biologist, the entrepreneurs and professors, and the people who work in large companies with dignity and integrity and imagination. Whether your path involves the found-object career or you have a better idea about jobs than I did in college, I look forward to pulling up easels next to each other in the art studio, figuratively speaking, as we all keep layering the paint onto the canvas of our lives.
Amy Whitaker ’96 is the author of Art Thinking: How to Carve Out Creative Space in a World of Schedules, Budgets, and Bosses (Harper Business, 2016), and an assistant professor at NYU Steinhardt. You can follow her on Twitter at @theamywhit.