When mom and dad ask us "What are going to do with your life?" they ask with a lot of worried expectation.
We've spent four years (not to mention $160,000) at one of the best colleges in the world and we should be ready to do something great. So if we answer their query with anything unorthodox, anything they can't feel proud to tell their neighbors, anything risky, they're disappointed and frightened.
Alan Kirschenbaum, Class of '83, is a sitcom writer and producer in Hollywood. His credits include the long running and acclaimed shows Yes, Dear and Coach, and by any standard, he is a success.
But that's not why his story is worth telling. His story is worth telling because Kirschenbaum disappointed his parents when he graduated. He was determined to follow a 'crazy' dream, and he did, spending his first three years out of Wharton not in a suit on Madison Avenue but in boots on a race track as an Ivy League horse trainer.
Kirschenbaum faced the pressure to succeed from the start.
"I have very lovely parents who deserved to be proud of their son," he said. "There was a certain protocol to being a young intelligent Jewish kid from the suburbs of New York and that gets programmed in at an early age." Under that pressure, he transferred from the College to Wharton early in his undergraduate career.
But that would be his last concession to protocol. He proudly explained that he "skated by" in class and spent his free time doing anything but work, whether mornings at the now vanished Liberty Bell Racetrack or evenings doing play-by-play for WXPN.
Though in Wharton, Kirschenbaum shunned on-campus recruiting and remained focused on a career in horse racing. "I was thinking I was going to work at the racetrack for the rest of my life, but I couldn't let my parents know that, so I had put up an elaborate smoke screen about getting a degree from Wharton."
Unexpectedly, when Kirschenbaum graduated he briefly flirted with the conventional track, and this made his parents very happy.
"There was a job available at a marketing agency that did sports marketing that had just gotten a tremendous amount of horse racing business. It seemed like serendipity," he explained. "I had to go buy a suit, and that thrilled my parents to no end."
"I worked there for nine months," he continued, "but then they went out of business, and I viewed that as serendipity too. The corporate world was not for me, and I went back to horse racing."
Kirschenbaum's parents were not thrilled at his return to rebelliousness, but he was determined to follow his passion. "I told them 'I love being at the track, that's the only place I love being, and I'm going back to the track.' They swallowed hard and hoped I would come to my senses at some point."
While his friends were making tens of thousands and moving up the corporate ladder, Kirschenbaum was slopping through manure and barely making enough to get by. But he was unflinching in his pursuit. "Struggling at something you love is fun."
But then, after three years, he was forced to accept the futility of his dream. "I came to the long and heartbreaking realization that I did not have the natural ability to [be a great trainer]. I would always be competent at it because I was intelligent and I paid a lot of attention and I loved it. But I would never be great at it because I wasn't a natural."
Many would have given up and given in, but not Kirschenbaum.
Rather than returning to the safety of the corporate world, he again followed his instincts. He tried writing comedy with a friend and there he discovered his niche. "I thought I should try something else that I liked, and everything I never felt at the track I felt within a couple of weeks in the TV business.
Even though he didn't make it as a horse trainer, Kirschenbaum is thankful he fought against his parents when he graduated.
"A number of my friends who went to Penn, who . chose to do what their parents expected them to do [and they] had a career crisis later on. They turned 30 and realized they were doing something they didn't like."
Kirschenbaum refused to be pushed into a life he didn't want, even if it his chosen path was harder. Now, 20 years later, he's is a success at something he loves, and he concluded, wisely, that its "it's easier to be successful than it is to be happy."
"Happy is the hardest thing to be."
Alex Weinstein is a College senior from Bridgeport, W.Va. His e-mail address is email@example.com.Comments powered by Disqus
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