Thursday, October 20, 2011

And What are You Going to Be When You Grow Up?

At some point people stopped asking me what I was going to be, and started asking what I was going to do. I don't know if this was because the '70s ended and some kind of fad ended along with it, or because I wasn't a little kid anymore. Either way, it sets off my political correctness alarm. I guess it's good to acknowledge that what a person does every day for money shouldn't entirely define who he is; however, I'm not so sure it's works as well for kids.

I think too many people choose what to do without taking inventory of who they are, what they like doing, and how they would spend their time if they had a real a choice in the matter. Some of this may be due to the remarkable achievements that young people make so early in life. Kids are already soccer players at 4, science majors in 9th grade, and have selected their dream colleges before they're out of middle school. Then, a few years later, they get a degree in German Renaissance Literature and a graduate degree in Ancient Runes, followed by a job in a coffee shop and a move back home with their parents. Much of this is due to the fact that we don't take real vocational training very seriously anymore, but that will have to wait for another post.

Three things before I go on:
  • This is not just when-I-was-a-kid-things-were-different curmudgeon crap. I know that my own generation was a part of making things this way. Even if things were a little different when I was younger, many people my own age fell victim to the same wrong-headed thinking anyway.
  • This is not to blame school counselors. I say this not only to shield myself from the very lovely; very, very smart; and very, very, very powerful women who work in the guidance office at my school. I say this because I think a lot of the shoddy career discernment is happening before the professionals are even involved. By the time you're taking the SATs and applying for colleges, you've already got some pretty firm ideas in place. Besides, school counselors are more in the business of helping you to achieve your dreams than changing them.
  • This could be like one of those weight-loss methods, or get rich in real estate things--just because something worked for me doesn't mean that it's a good method. In fact, that axiom is probably a Slacker Guide topic all on its own.

The problem with the way we choose a career these days is that students tend to respond to the wrong set of data. "I like science, therefore I should be a scientist." Well, what is it you like about science? Is it being introduced to a novel, thrilling, and vast concept every few weeks? Is it engaging in something mentally taxing and working your way through it? Is it working with a teacher you really admire for her intelligence and enthusiasm?

If so, you may find that the daily work of many working scientists--e.g. 1. Distribute a solution to a reagent with a micro-pipet. 2. Repeat. 3. Repeat...--isn't quite the same as what attracted you to the sciences in the first place.

Choosing what you're going to do every day for forty years or so should involve some measure of looking at what these people do every day. It's a complicated set of variables to manipulate, but try this simple flowchart (this one is for music careers, but it can easily be adapted to your own interests):

If it's not entirely obvious how this works, take yourself through an example. For instance, if you would like to work outside, be your own boss, and get paid for what you produce (rather than punching a clock) you could either be a rock star, or a bum--depending on earnings and fringe benefits. Notice also, if you end up in music teaching and find it lacking, you can move over to retail with similar schedules and earning potential. Similarly, if you enjoy the perks of recording engineers, but would like to avoid all of the actual work, you can slide over to record executive...or, once again, bum.

If the above flowchart isn't as user-friendly and obvious as I intended, try these tips:
  1. Pay special attention to what people in your potential career actually do at work. Case in point: I very seriously considered becoming a priest. Aside from the fact that I really liked girls (more, perhaps, than the average guy did--especially when you factor in the guys who turned out to be gay), I see now that what I actually wanted to do was say Mass--probably not even say Mass, but chant it. In Latin. I didn't think about visiting sick people, attending parish council meetings, and writing (not just delivering, but, you know...preparing) homilies.
  2. Don't be suckered into something just because you're good at it. We all get a lift from doing something well and being praised for it. However, eventually the amount of praise goes way down, even if you're actually good. At that point, your motivation will need to come from elsewhere.
  3. Distinguish between people you admire and jobs you want to do. Your favorite teacher, coach, boss, etc. may not be a proper representative of his field and you may find that everyone else in that field is a disappointment.
  4. Test yourself on your beliefs about your own strengths. If you think you could be a writer, try to write something every day and see how long you can keep up with it. If you like working with computers, do it for a whole day sometime--without playing video games.
  5. Consider the money, but don't let that be the only factor. Market forces can change over a period of time, especially in the amount of time it takes to get your degree/certification/credentials. Today's safe bet may be over by then. Your dream job that you consider too impractical may suddenly be booming by the time you're ready. Plus, you could always marry money. What would you want your job to be if that happened? That's probably a good indicator.
A final suggestion: beware bias in all career advice you're given. As Mr. Weasley said, “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain." Bias can even come from a pretty good motivation--I like what I do for a living; you're smart and skilled in this field; therefore, you should do this too. This is not enough. No matter how much I seem to like what I do, it isn't enough to make you do it. And it certainly isn't enough to have you try to be who I am.


  1. love it. and it hits home because i failed magnificently in choosing a proper career. i went with #5 (money, money, money) as my motivation instead of something i loved and wow, was that the perfect way to have to "retire" at 36!
    now at 39 i'm searching for what it is that i want to do with the rest of my life and the answer still isn't obvious. it seems too late to choose the path i should have chosen 20 years ago.
    (btw, #1 made me laugh)

  2. afc,
    Thanks for the comments!
    Being focused and driven certainly has its place, but I do recognize that I benefited from the comfort of low expectations.
    I know lots of people my age who are dealing with the "too late" issue. It's especially tough because it doesn't become less late over time.
    (btw, women who knew me while #1 was being worked out may find it surprising that the priesthood was a consideration, though less surprising the reason Ordination wasn't entirely destined...)