In my kindergarten class, like many others, our teachers handed out a paper that read “When I grow up, I want to be _____.” We were tasked with filling out the form and probably coloring it, or something. I don’t quite remember this kindergarten exercise, but my parents have told me about it many times. On Back to School Night, when they came into my classroom and mine and my classmate’s papers were displayed on the wall, amidst a bunch of pages that read “firefighter” and “astronaut,” mine simply read “RICH.”
What can I say? I was a girl who knew what I wanted.
This story always makes me think two things: first, 5-year-old Renata either thought that she would have enough energy to work every hour of every day through her 40s or that she was going to win the lottery somehow…you have to admire her optimism. My other thought is: HOW CAN THEY EXPECT A 5-YEAR-OLD TO KNOW WHAT THEY’LL WANT TO BE WHEN THEY GET OLDER?!
Now, I know what you’re thinking…Renata, of course they didn’t think that you’d know what you’d want to do as an adult. They just wanted you to fill out and color a cute picture that your parents would hopefully hang on the fridge, but yours just happened to hide it in shame.
Well, yeah, of course you’re right. But really, that’s just how it begins. In high school, at the young age of 14, you’re supposed to think about college and figure out where you’ll go. Where you’ll go to college is often related to what you’ll study, so you need to know what you’ll get a degree in when choosing a college. And that degree will hopefully get you a job in that field that you felt pressured to decide on before you were 18. So you go to college studying something so intensely that you come out of the experience only knowing how to do what you studied, and then you get a job that pushes you further down the same-field rabbit hole.
So, recognizing this pattern, I repeat: HOW CAN THEY EXPECT AN 18-YEAR-OLD TO KNOW WHAT THEY’LL WANT TO BE WHEN THEY GET OLDER?!
As unrealistic as it is that anyone will be able to decide on their profession at 18, that is the expectation. At every stage, we are tasked with knowing exactly what we’ll want to do for a living as though it is final, when really, that is rarely the case. While it is very rare that anyone stays in the same field their entire life, it is infinitely easier to get into a field that you’ve been studying or working in for years. And there is no way to study or work in an industry for years unless you start at a young age. But how can you decide what you’ll want to do if you haven’t experienced much? And even if you make a decision on a career path at 18, what if you change your mind at 22? 25? 30? 40?
When feeling directionless and asking for help, I feel like I am always met with conflicting advice about work life.
“Follow your passion.”
“Everyone’s miserable at their job, you just need to make money.”
“If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
“We’re all just working for the weekend.”
The obvious reality is that life is a mixed bag. Not every day can be the best, and no one feels fulfilled 100% of the time. But with all of these different messages coming at us from all directions, how can we know what’s right? Do we try to find something we like to do? Or something that will make us money while making us the least miserable? Is there a right answer? If there is, shouldn’t I know it by now?
We look back on our 5-year-old selves and laugh.
Ha! I wanted to be a vet? Little did I know that I hate schooling…and cats.
Wow, I thought that being a chef would be so cool, but I can’t work under all that pressure!
I even laughed at my 5-year-old self earlier in this post. We’ve decided that not knowing what we’re going to do is somehow laughable and shameful. Twenty years later, we look back on our college years and laugh at our past selves. Why did I think I’d be happy doing research? How could I not see sooner that that wasn’t the right path for me? (okay, this one was actually me).
Now, every time I take on a new possible venture, I feel embarrassed. How can I not know what I should be doing by now? I applied, interviewed, and decided not to go to graduate school. I try a bunch of different side jobs every year. I recently applied to take more undergraduate courses. I keep coming back to the idea of getting my life coach certification. What, if anything, will make me feel happy, fulfilled, and pay me enough to live?
I have no idea what I want to do or be, ultimately. Am I a failure? Sometimes it feels that way. Plenty of people my age know where they’re going what they’re meant to be doing. How come I don’t? What am I doing wrong? At this point, the most important goal that I can have is to be understanding with myself. I need to recognize that, even if several people know by my age what they want to do, it’s okay that I’m still uncertain. There’s nothing wrong with exploring and trying different things. Plus, who knows? What I want to do now may not be what I want to do in 20 years.
I just want to make myself proud, and for that to happen, I need to distance myself from this stigma that exists around being directionless. I need to accept that it’s okay that I don’t have all of the answers yet.