My nephew asked me what I do. Am I an author? Am I a 'businessman' (whatever that means)? What do I do 'for a living'? Leave it to a child to ask the hard questions...
When I was in university, I was friends with two of the smartest people I knew. One was the head medical librarian for the Health Sciences in Winnipeg. The other was the retired dean of Biochemistry at the same institution (it was/is part of the University of Manitoba). It helped that they were married so I got to see them both at the same time. At the time (1987), I was an early AI (artificial intelligence) programmer--I was 16 and didn't know any better. While I say AI, it was really a series of logic-maps that made the user feel like the computer was thinking; it was nothing even approaching what they are doing today. I was helping build medical tutorials for Cambridge university. I was only the programmer; I did what I was told. At the time, I felt very special and important. They treated me as a person with potential--and they talked to me like a friend. The librarian would tell me that she was still wondering what she would do when she grew up (she was 65 at the time). The retired dean would talk to me about a book he was reading and ask my viewpoint on a number of things. He always had a smile on his face, even when he was grumbling about his body falling apart.
At the time, I thought I would be a doctor or computer programmer. Then I was introduced to John Milton through my grade 12 English teachers (they had two teachers for the programme I was in). Paradise Lost changed my life. I took a year off and travelled (hitch-hiked Europe and Middle East) for a year before returning to university to study English and History. I got my Education degree in case I dropped out and wanted to teach. As it happened, teaching wasn't for me and I turned to Law. As it happened, I didn't find the law as inspiring as I had hoped. I finished, but not before starting my life as an entrepreneur.
Life as an entrepreneur has its ups and downs. I have had many downs and many ups. On the whole, I believe that life has been kind to me. I have come to believe that existence is about understanding our environment, ourselves, and the time in which we live. The rest is about risk management and individual desires.
So, when my nephew asks me what I do, I find myself in a bind. He isn't interested in a long-winded explanation from an 'old' man (at his age, anyone older than 30 is an old man). He needs to slot me into his version of the world. He is at the age where he is trying to make sense of his environment. For him, I say that I am a businessman who writes on the side. When he is older, I will explain that I am a writer who does business because we live in a world and time where this is required of us. When he is older still, I will discuss the dangers and opportunities posed by capitalism (for him as an individual and us as a society). When he has found his own way and we are sitting under a tree sipping a nice wine, I will tell him what I really do: seek meaning and relevance and become the best person that I am able to be.
That being said, it isn't as easy as it sounds. I am not trying to save the world (there are better people than me to pursue that). I am not sure what saving means--as it requires an unwavering belief that we know what is right. If we don't know what is right, how will we recognise what is wrong (and, hence, be compelled to 'save' or correct a wrong)? In extreme examples, it is relatively easy (genocide is generally considered a bad thing; abuse of the weak is generally considered undesirable). Even war can be considered both right and wrong depending on which side of the argument you sit. War, generally, is considered wrong. But there are few (other than very enlightened souls like Ghandi) who would have thought not to fight Nazi aggression in WWII.
What I strive for is a world in which each of us can examine our environment and ourselves and find our place amidst each other. The question of my nephew stands: is that really something that one does?