Earlier this week, as one of my students shared her biographical research report on Walt Disney, I remembered writing my own paper about him in sixth grade. My family had just moved to Florida from West Virginia and, having always been fascinated with all things Disney, I was super excited to now be living a little closer to the magic. I worked my tail off on that paper--I did my research, wrote in my neatest cursive, and just to throw in some flair, I cut out some pictures from Disney books I had at home and glued them to the cover for decoration (this was long before the days of internet cut + paste). I included my own dreams of working at Disney World one day in the conclusion. I anxiously awaited my teacher's response, but she was not pleased. "I'm shocked to get this level of effort from you...you normally hand in such great work. Cutting and pasting pictures from a book? You're going to have to do better than this if you plan on working for Disney one day," she laughed. She was wrong. It turns out you really don't have to work that hard, you just have to look the part.
I showed up at Disney's Human Resources office just looking for a job--any job. I graduated from college a few months earlier and taken a very grown-up job where I got to wear a suit and have benefits and bring home the same amount of money every week. The problem was, I was working for a jerk of almost Weinstein proportions. He crossed the line one day and being a naive and insecure 24 year-old, I didn't report him, I just walked out. I was living on my own and needed a job fast. Luckily there was one place in Orlando that was always hiring.
Originally I applied for a job related to the type of administrative work I had been doing. But as I looked over the available positions, the auditions for character performers kept calling to me. I felt silly even considering it--it didn't exactly feel like the most responsible choice to leave a job with decent pay and benefits to work at a theme park. But as I started reflecting back on my dreams of working for Disney as a child and my love of performing, I figured that if this is something I wanted to explore, now would be the time to do it.
I decided to audition as an equity performer, a non-character role that involved dancing in parades and shows, but it became clear quickly that I was way out of my league. I grew up taking dance lessons but it had been quite a few years and it showed. After the first round of cuts where I was quickly eliminated, one of the judges asked me to move to another room and audition for a character role as Alice. I went into a room that was full of wigs and costumes, sat in what looked like a salon chair, and watched as the cosmetologist transformed me with a wig, make-up, and dress into Alice. It was funny that out of all the Disney characters out there, I was watching myself become the one that had been my favorite growing up. I returned to the audition room as Alice, did a much easier combination of dance steps (thank goodness), tried my best attempt at a British accent, and then waited with the rest of the performers to see who made the cut.
As it turned out, I did. They informed me that I'd be performing at various parks and hotels within the resort doing parades and meet-and-greets. I'd have to work at least full-time six days a week to make ends meet, but I was excited to take on a new adventure. Just like Alice, my curiosity had led me there and I was even more curious to see where it would go.
As a performer, you only actually work 20 minutes of every hour and I often worked 8-12 hour days, so there was a lot of time to fill. There was a green room with magazines and TV but I tired of that quickly. Out of boredom, I began exploring the employee library and it was there that I discovered a whole genre of books I had no idea existed. They were dedicated to nothing except bettering yourself: the self-help section. I had always been so confused by life and these books seemed like they had all the answers--why had nobody told me about this?! I spent 40 minutes of nearly every hour reading everything I could find. I was learning way more about myself than I'd ever learned getting my psychology degree.
It was also at Disney that I discovered my easy connection with kids. Working with adults had been hard, but kids were so much fun and it was a very rewarding feeling making a child happy, especially one whose last wish was to meet Alice. The Make-a-Wish program is very special and those kids will always hold a place in my heart. One day I was telling a fellow performer, a former teacher, how much I was enjoying working with kids and she suggested I look into teaching as a career. It was right around Christmas and I was beginning to tire of the long hours performing and few days off, so a change was sounding good. I also felt like it was time to move onto something that had career potential. I applied for a Kindergarten position at a school in Orlando just to see if I would get an interview and I did. The interview was on a Friday and went a little like this: I see you're breathing...can you start Monday? I hadn't really been prepared to take a job that quickly, but after meeting the class I couldn't say no--everything in me was saying "yes", as it had a couple years earlier when I auditioned for Disney. I was at another fork in the road and curiosity was calling to me once again. I started teaching and never looked back.
If I learned anything from my Disney experience it's to always follow your curiosity. Yes, one could say I've bounced around a bit in my life--my love life, work life, and creative life haven't followed a straight line, but it's all informed where I am now and I've gathered wonderful experiences and memories along the way.
I heard something in a TED talk once that has stuck with me--Elizabeth Gilbert's talk on finding your passion entitled "Jackhammers and Hummingbirds". She spoke of how some people are born knowing exactly what it is they want to do with their lives--knowing precisely what their passion is--and they go after it with a laser focus until they achieve their goal (those are the jackhammers). Others, she proposed, are made more like hummingbirds. They are guided by their curiosity. Rather than chase one particular burning desire, they explore what they feel called to do until the next thing calls to them and they travel around this way, bringing the experiences and knowledge they've gained from one thing into another--cross-pollinating--and in this way, usually stumble into what it is they're meant to do...for as long as they're meant to do it. She argues that there's not one "right" way to be, but just two different ways of being. This resonated with me and I've since embraced the idea of following my curiosity rather than try to fight it.
I remember a conversation with my therapist in my early twenties that went something like this:
"I see my friends knowing exactly what they want to do, settling down, getting married...I want to explore so many things...I could never see myself doing the same thing or being with the same person for the rest of my life."
"Then don't," she said.
"But isn't that what I'm supposed to be doing? Choosing a job...choosing a place...choosing a person?"
"Says who? Don't worry about what everyone else is doing, you're not them and you don't know their reasons for their choices--it could be those are the choices that make them happy or it could be they are choosing these things because they feel they should...either way, it's none of your business. Follow your own path, your intuition will guide you in the right direction. What feels right for you?"
"Not doing what they're doing...at least not right now."
"Then don't. Unless or until it does. You'll know."
I'm so happy I listened.
Approaching life this way has meant that I got to experience so many things I wouldn't have otherwise. I wonder where I'd be today had I stayed at that miserable job because it was the logical thing to do. Or accepted an invitation to marry my then-boyfriend because my friends were all getting married, when my heart was clearly saying no. Diverting off the main drag to explore the side road of my curiosity at different points over the years has led me to adventures I can't imagine having missed out on. It led me to Disney, to teaching, to Montessori, to my son, to my husband (our story went like this: he walked in a room, I wondered "now WHO is that?", and then set out to go find the answer). I'm still interested in finding more out about him, and that's the beauty of following your curiosity. It doesn't have to mean bouncing around from thing to thing, it can mean rediscovering something, digging deeper...that is, as long as you're still curious.