Last year, a student came to me with a dilemma: she had just attained “junior” status, so it was time to declare a major. On top of that, her parents were pressuring her to figure out what she was going to do with her life; she was the first in her family to attend college, and her folks were pretty skeptical about the whole endeavor. They were anxious that the investment in time and money would pay off for their daughter.
I asked the student about her interests. “I like business,” she said, “but I’m just not sure. I’m taking accounting right now, so I suppose I could work toward becoming an accountant.” I remarked that she didn’t seem too enthused about that career option. Then she blurted out her real concern: ”I’m so afraid I’ll end up in a career I don’t like!” Her eyes grew wide. “I mean, what if I start down the wrong path, and I end up being miserable? What if I make the wrong choice?”
I thought, you are twenty years old. “Then you choose again,” I said, and told her about the long and winding road that had finally brought me to this time and place, and the first job in my life that I’ve ever really loved. It took a lot of trial and error, experimentation, finding out what worked and what didn’t. There were some rough spots along the way, but those difficult times probably contributed the most to my sense of self.
My first job out of college was doing data entry at a big corporate bank. I sat in a cubicle by myself, all day long, putting numbers into spreadsheets. The work was tedious and repetitious, and it wasn’t long before I felt it was sucking out my very soul; the creative and spontaneous side of me was dying. And I was lonely. I never realized how much I need human interaction until I sat in that beige cubicle alone for days, weeks, months on end.
That job paid the bills for awhile, and I eventually moved on to something else, but it brought me clarity on what I needed in my career: a chance to be creative, and to engage with others. And those are two of the things I love most about teaching; creating lesson plans and activities for my students, and then joining them for a learning experience in the classroom.
I told my student that, while there’s always “the path not taken,” we have to make the best decisions we can, based upon what we know at the time. But that doesn’t mean we can’t choose again as we refine our life goals. Some of the most amazing people I know have had long and meandering career paths, but they’ve picked up so many great skills and insights along the way.
So I tried to explain to this young woman: you may not get it right the first time, and you don’t have to. There’s a world of possibilities out there, and we may have to try and discard a few of them before we know what’s best for us.
For some of us, it takes a little longer to figure out what we want to be when we grow up. And that’s okay.