Do You Know What You Want to Be When You Grow Up? (I Still Don’t)

Posted: September 3, 2014 in Jobs and Career, Life Lessons
Tags: , , ,

When you head off to college, you’re supposed to know what you want to be or do for a career. That’s the whole point of being in college, to gain knowledge for your intended major. In the early fall of 1996, I headed to New Hampshire to take my next step as a college student.

Nobody gave me the memo that said this meant I was supposed to know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was just happy to be accepted into a college.

That first semester, I took the basic courses that you have to get out of the way: Algebra, Biology, Sociology. Then, halfway through the semester, I discovered something shocking: by the end of the semester, I had to declare a major. My advisor kindly explained to me that it would be like a snowball effect if I didn’t. If I didn’t choose my major now, I would not be able to fit in all the courses for that major and that ultimately meant I would not graduate with my class, and would have to attend another semester, if not another year, costing my parents and myself thousands more in tuition and expenses.
That little pep talk spurred me into action.

I headed back to my room with the course catalog in hand, ready to decide my destiny.

I was either going to choose an intelligent, well-thought out career path taking into consideration my strengths and weaknesses, plus factor in my earning potential at my chosen career . . .

. . . or I was going to open to several pages at random, and see what struck my fancy.

I didn't know how to figure it out. Which way would I choose?

I didn’t know how to figure it out. Which way would I choose?

While it wasn’t quite that random, I did make a decision as only a person unsure of themselves and their path in life would do. As I remember it, my reasoning went a little like this: Well, I was the assistant dance teacher for a few years and I liked working with kids, plus I’m pretty smart, so I guess being a teacher sounds good.

Oh, I wish I were joking.

On top of that, I added a minor in art, because I loved art and wanted to keep taking art classes. I didn’t choose it as my major because I had zero faith in my own talent or ability to turn it into a career. At least as a teacher, I would get hired and get paid, right?

To say I made a mistake choosing my career would discount two things that I now believe:

1. Nothing we do is wasted. I spent two years teaching in a public school, three years working in an education-related field, and five years as a preschool teacher. My experiences and knowledge informed who I am today, so I would not say it was all wasted. I have a Bachelor’s degree, which is useful in many situations, and I was able to earn a living for many years teaching.

2. Sometimes, you’re just not ready. Sure, I could have chosen other careers. But I chose the one that felt right to me at the time. Could I have been an artist then? A writer? No way. I didn’t have a strong belief in my own identity, and too many people around me had said or alluded to the fact that you can’t make a living on those careers.

So, while I didn’t pick a lifelong career that fall day in 1996, I did pick a path that would allow me to grow, learn, and provide a living for myself and, in the future, my family.

But as time went on, my true, deep down feelings about what I wanted in life kept coming back around. In 2004, I took a correspondence writing course. In 2005, after my daughter was born and I was staying at home, I got my hands on as much information as I could find about starting a home-based business, freelance writing, and how to market my services. By fall of 2006, however, it was very clear to me that I was not ready and/or aggressive enough to jump completely into writing. Waving a white flag, and falling back on my education (plus doing a good thing for my daughter), I applied to work at the local preschool.

At the time, my ex-husband and I were still living in my parent’s house, and if we were to ever have any hope of buying the house in town we wanted, I needed to provide a steady income. Plus, my then 15-month-old could attend preschool and I would not have to worry about daycare. It was a win-win situation.

And I was absolutely miserable.

The first week I was there, I would take a bathroom break just so I could go sit and cry for a few minutes. It was the first time I had really been away from Sophie, and the teachers at the preschool told me it was best if I didn’t see her throughout the day because she was having such bad separation issues that merely the sight of me would sent her into uncontrollable fits. I felt devalued, because I was nothing more than a glorified babysitter. High school girls were in the same job position I was in.

I hated my job so much that . . . I stuck it out for five years. I felt trapped and didn’t believe I had any other options. I was making decent money and I should have liked my job. The hours were decent, and I got all school holidays off plus all school vacations.

But when you’re working just to get by, it’s not the same as doing what you are meant to do. I did my job and I did it well, but for all the wrong reasons. I was too scared and had too little belief in myself to even consider what else to do.
I finally got a nudge in the right direction, but my life had to fall apart for me to take that chance. Over Christmas of 2009, my then-husband left. Suddenly, to start the new year, I had to start my whole life over. I was now responsible for all my bills, keeping a roof over my daughter’s head, and adjusting to life as a single parent, something I had never considered would happen to me. I was like an ostrich who had just pulled her head out of the sand and looked around for the first time, finally seeing the lies I had allowed myself to live.

By summer, I had found my footing a little bit and knew I wanted to do a whole lot more for myself. The final push came when everyone at my school was told that in order to work again in the fall, we would all have to reapply for our jobs. I was furious! I had worked there for five years, and I felt as though it meant nothing. I turned in my notice, and struggled for several months to make ends meet. I got one freelancing assignment, and by December had also added a part time job. For the next year or so, I worked on getting better as a writer, plus some of the pressure was off financially thanks to the steady paycheck my part time job provided.

I often wonder, as I’m sure many people also wonder about their own lives, what took me so long? Why did it take so many years for me to understand what I already knew? What was I so scared of?

This is no way to pick your path in life. Although, it's sometimes tempting!

This is no way to pick your path in life. Although, it’s sometimes tempting!

Partly, it’s what we’re told by (I assume) well-meaning friends, family, and society. Go to school, get a good, steady job. Unfortunately, that advice hardly ever applies anymore. There are no “good, steady” jobs. People who are loyal to one company might find themselves pink-slipped, the company is sold, or their job is suddenly outsourced, and then? Where is all that job security they were told about? So it’s smarter to say these days that the only thing you can really count on is . . . yourself, of course.

That’s why the world is a freelancer’s oyster. Companies want to hire a contract person to provide a much needed service. People who own service businesses can pick and choose their clients if they understand how it all works. And it’s only heading more in that direction every day.

That inkling I had way back in 2006, when I tentatively flopped about in the world of freelancing, was a good one. I wish I had been able to trust my instincts a little more back then, but for whatever reason, I wasn’t supposed to start then. I had a lot of life lessons to get through before I could know what I wanted to be when I grew up. And, right now, I’m still growing.

It’s funny, my Dad always had a joke he would say when I was a kid. He would say he was still figuring out what he wanted to be when he grew up. It always struck me as funny because he was a grown up! So he already knew what he wanted to be – because he was being it, right?

Now that I’m grown up, I understand. We’re always figuring out what we want to be. What felt right at 20 may not feel the same at 28 or 32. What you trained for may be outsourced. What you wanted then might not fit anymore. No matter what you are right now, it won’t remain the same, unchanged, forever. You grow, change, move, learn, and live. You accept who you are, or become who you always wanted to be. It can take one decision or years of baby steps.

I’ve figured out now what I didn’t know when I was 18 and had to pick my major: it’s okay to not know. I’m still figuring out what I want to be when I grow up.

What about you? Did you always know what you wanted to be? Or are you still in the process of figuring it all out? Either way, I’d love to hear from you!

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