Not everyone has their life figured out at 10 years old, but I liked to think of myself as an exception. It was fifth grade, and I’d just learned a new word: “ethnobotany.”
The study of the relationship between people and plants, ethnobotany seemed like a perfect way to straddle my love for both social science and native flora.
So it was decided then, by a 10-year-old Maya who wore Crocs and had a flip phone, that she would be an ethnobotanist. I went around telling my new career prospect to anyone who would listen. Holding an image of myself in khaki pants and hiking boots in mind, I endeavored to learn more about native flora in the years that followed.
By seventh grade, I had memorized more than 400 species of flowering plants native to the Santa Monica Mountains. By tenth grade, I knew their scientific names and many of their indigenous uses.
I pursued internships and jobs with ethnobotany in mind. I became a California State Parks docent, interned for the National Park Service and joined the California Native Plant Society, where I lowered the mean age by about 25 years. In high school, I took an ethnobotany class at a community college to get a glimpse of what university might be like.
When it came time to apply – predictably – my essays were mainly about ethnobotany. I checked off “anthropology” and “plant science” on the Common Application, and where I could, I indicated I’d like to create my own major.
I arrived at UC Berkeley with a goal-oriented class schedule that began with sociocultural anthropology. I joined the Anthropology Undergraduate Association and wasted no time finding research in the department.
But the more I learned about what the life of an academic researcher entails, the less in love with ethnobotany I became. The reality was not the romantic career I had envisioned.
Hearing firsthand about the grant process from graduate students and the nail-biting struggle of trying to become a lecturer while making ends meet and later fighting to possibly become a professor — it wasn’t what I wanted from a career.
I felt myself approaching an existential crisis at top speed. I had insisted ethnobotany was my path for so long that changing my mind felt like betraying myself.
I didn’t know who I was apart from the identity I had built around my prospective career. Once one part of that construction was called into question, the rest no longer felt purposeful.
I had known myself as “Maya the Botanist” for so long that I hadn’t allowed myself to explore much of anything else. Once I didn’t have a career path in mind or a trajectory to follow, I lost my drive to complete assignments and stopped attending classes, hesitant to continue learning about something that I didn’t love after all.
Once the chaos of finals subsided, I took a lot of time to reflect on myself. I took an unusual job, went on several small trips alone and spent a lot of time actively trying to make myself happy.
In the semesters that followed, I took all sorts of courses ranging from sociology to linguistics to Hebrew, and I finally settled somewhere I’ve always felt comfortable.
While ethnobotany had been my prospective career for as long as I can remember, journalism had been my hobby all along. I was in the newspaper throughout high school and joined The Daily Californian the same day I stepped foot into my first anthropology class at UC Berkeley.
My first high school essay was on media monopolies, and my last was about Life Magazine’s influence on the 1960s. Lurking in the background, following me like a shadow, journalism had been tailing me for years, and it took a typical college-major crisis for me to turn around and realize it.
In a matter of months I made an about-face, declared media studies and later decided to double major in political science. Honestly, I love it.
I’m still me. I’ve always been me, and I don’t feel any less like myself having chosen to pursue political communication over ethnobotany. If anything, I feel like I’m being truer to myself.
So if I have any advice to give, it’s not to write off a hobby. We cultivate and maintain hobbies because we feel a connection to a certain subject or activity. Maybe you collect coins, maybe you rock climb, maybe you obsessively collect and press endemic flowers (no judgement) — whatever you do, don’t treat your side projects like they don’t mean anything. Clearly they do, or you wouldn’t still be doing them.
If you’re ever feeling stuck or frustrated on your current career path, look to your hobbies for guidance. People talk a lot about the career “pivot.” Sure, pivot if you’d like, but also consider taking up one of your pastimes professionally.
I turned my hobby into my career and my career into my hobby and I’m stoked about it. Instead of an ethnobotanist who reads the news and likes local politics, I’m going to be a political journalist who backpacks and spends her free time geeking out over native plants — at least that’s the plan … for now.
TLDR: Maybe it’s time to downgrade your prospective career and upgrade the hell out of your favorite pastime.
Contact Maya Eliahou at [email protected].