Is Your Career Path Determined By a High School Kid?
Photo courtesy of mrehan.

Is Your Career Path Determined By a High School Kid?

Written by Emilie

Topics: Guest Posts, Life

Editor’s Note: this is a guest post by Dan Johnson.

I was thinking recently about how so many people end up in jobs that they don’t like, and I started wondering what it is that leads so many of us down that path towards a life of boredom and broken dreams.

When did we make the decisions that would determine the course of our career?

When you were a little kid and someone asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, you probably said something like “a spaceman”, “a princess”, or “a dinosaur“.

Understandable, as young children aren’t in a position to think logically about what they will do as an adult. They simply don’t have the capacity or the frame of reference to think and plan that far ahead.

It’s only as we get a bit older and go to school that we really start to be exposed to the career choices available, and our answers might start to seem more realistic, perhaps “a policeman”, “a doctor”, “a train driver”. These choices however, are still based on a childish notion of what might be a cool job, rather than any actual knowledge of what the job entails.

As we go into high school, and learning becomes ‘work’ rather than ‘play’, we are encouraged to start thinking seriously about what we want to do for a career. By age 13 or 14, we are already choosing subjects that we want to focus on, which will pave the way for our university education and ultimately the work we end up doing.

So it seems that the decisions that determine our career path start to be made around the age of 13.

Do you remember the hopes and aspirations you had at age 13? Did you even have any, or were there more immediate issues to worry about, like which girls (or boys) liked you, and how to control your acne? Did you have a strong set of values and a solid idea of what you really wanted in life? Chances are your future career was the farthest thing from your mind.

Not only is it ridiculous to expect 13-year-olds to have any real concept of what they want to do for the rest of their lives, it’s also unfair to make them choose a single thing to specialize in, and work towards that at the expense of developing any other areas of interest.

And yet from 13 onwards, we are encouraged to choose exactly what we want to do in the future and start working towards it. As we get older, the path gets narrower, as we drop extraneous subjects and focus in on our chosen career path.

But how is it possible at such a young age to decide what we will do for the rest of our lives?

Many high schools provide some form of (patchy and inconsistent) careers advice for teenagers. I remember the careers advice at my school. It consisted of completing a survey about myself, and feeding the answers into a computer program, which then informed me that my ideal job was accountancy. I can’t think of anything I’d enjoy less.

But teenagers are very impressionable (perhaps that accounts for why I ended up doing a degree in mathematics and computer science)! When the careers adviser tells you it’s unrealistic to want to be an artist, you listen. When your parents tell you that you need to go where the money is, you listen.

It all goes in, and despite still having almost no concept of what adult working life is really like, this 13 – 15 year old child begins to form a picture of themselves in their future career, and they start down the long road that has been laid out for them.

The next 5 – 10 years may be spent studying your chosen subject, learning everything you need to know to prepare you for your working life. Never mind if you discover halfway down the road that you really have no interest in what you’re studying, you’ve invested too much time in it now to go back and learn something else. Best to just get through it and at least you’ll have a good chance of getting a well-paid job.

And you might work in your chosen profession for several years, until one day you wake up and think “I wish I was 13 again so that I could choose a different path”.

What Do You Want from Life?

Most high school kids don’t know what they really want from life (most 30-year-olds I know still don’t)! They haven’t had enough life experience to establish their own values and goals. So why is that we are encouraged at such a young age to choose the direction our lives will take?

“I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.”

~ Ooh La La, The Faces

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Most people say that if they had only known then what they know now, they would have done things differently.

Imagine You’re 13 Again

But now you’re armed with all the knowledge and experience that you have today. Ask yourself the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’ll bet your answer isn’t the same as it was the first time around.

Since you’re reading Emilie’s blog, I’m guessing you have a whole bunch of different interests, so chances are, if you could do it all over again, maybe you wouldn’t head straight down a long and narrow career path, but you might explore a few different routes and look for the career opportunities where these paths intersect.

The question is, are you going to change course and start getting where you are meant to be, or are you going to continue down a path that was chosen for you by a 13 year-old kid?

Dan Johnson is an artist and multipotentialite who writes about his journey toward making a living from creativity over at Right Brain Rockstar.

27 Comments

  1. Julia says:

    When I was 13, I was going to become a doctor. And a teacher. And a singer/songwriter. And a poet. And…. When I got to science class and had to direct a frog, I knew that doctor was out of the question. GROSS! When I got didn’t get any leads in drama or in choir I knew singer/songwriter was out of the equation too. But who makes money being a poet? I became an admin assistant. Cause I could file the crap out of things, cause I knew my ABC’s. ;) Yeah… I chose a job that paid the bills.

    • Dan says:

      Hey Julia. So are you still an admin assistant, or have you left the cube? Sounds like you’ve at least made the decision to make a change, so well done!

  2. Sandy says:

    When I was a kid I wanted to be a teacher because I loved the idea of being in front of the class and writing on the blackboard.
    Later in highschool I wanted to be an accountant because I took a class and was pretty good at it. Subsequently I came up with the idea of becoming a dentist which my parents then talked me out of..Funny that I did really well in English and creative courses but never decided to pursue it because I didn’t know what the career path was..(and having Indian parents ..a major no-no!) Decided to pursue sciences in college to keep my doors open and then at 18 when it came time to fill out the university applications I decided to go into engineering!…All this to say that I totally agree that 13-18 is waaay to early to know what you want to do with the ‘rest’ of your life! I have had a pretty good career but was I doing what I really was/am meant to do? Most likely not! To answer the question-I’ve jumped off that path (recently) and now I am on one that is not defined but allowing me to explore and I’m loving it!

    • Dan says:

      Hey Sandy

      Yeah, it’s funny how we are always steered away from doing things we really enjoy because there is no defined ‘career path’. I guess creating your own career is a relatively new concept.

      Anyway, congratulations for jumping off the path and going exploring!

  3. Adam Lasky says:

    It’s a funny question to think about because when I was 13 Al Gore was still busy inventing the internet. My inner 13 year old kid was thinking about working for NASA or tracking down deadly viruses like Ebola in Africa. I loved that kind of science but couldn’t cut it in organic chemistry or biology. I tried politics (my college major), theology (my graduate degree), education (my other graduate degree), and ended up in content marketing. Throughout the entire journey I learned that I love to read, write, and explore. If there’s an opening for an Indiana Jones/Bill Bryson crossover job posting, let me know!

    • Dan says:

      Wow Adam, you’ve certainly explored a lot of different avenues! Better to try lots of things and rule them out than to never try anything and wonder what if. I’m sure there must be a gap in the market for an Indiana Bryson!

  4. jennifer says:

    SO TRUE!! I decided I was going to grow up to be a writer when I was 12 years old. Lucky for me, I still love being a writer and couldn’t imagine not being one! But I do wish I would have put college off after high school and instead learned about life by traveling and living different places and trying different things. If I was me now back when I was 13, that totally would have happened.

    • Dan says:

      Hey Jennifer. Congratulations on following your childhood dreams! And don’t worry, it’s never too late to see the world and experience new things. In a way I think it can be better to do these things when you’re a bit older and wiser. I know people who travelled after high school but now want to do it again as they feel like they missed out on a lot because they were too young and naive to make the most of the experience.

  5. Puddle says:

    At my school reunion they brought out these little slips we had apparently filled out where we had written down what we would do when we grew up. I had completely forgotten about this and had no idea what I might have written down.

    professional dancer
    designer for theatre
    stuntman
    doctor
    filmmaker
    animator

    in the years since, i’ve managed to do 5/6 and added a few others, missing out only on being a stuntman, though i managed an extra spot on one of the Matrix films. Even looking back, there a few things I might change, but on the whole, 13 year old me did pretty good.

  6. Dan says:

    Hey Puddle, 5 out of 6 and an appearance in the Matrix isn’t bad going! Props to your 13 year old self for having such foresight!

  7. Accountancy lol! How awful.

    I’ve had 20 jobs in the last 20 years. Mainly in banks, libraries, charities, admin, marketing, education. I don’t care any more that I haven’t had a ‘proper career’. I am now a writer, which is what I have always secretly wanted to be, so it just came about. I feel like it was fate.

  8. Andy says:

    So true – it’s amazing to think about the way that when you are growing up you are encouraged to limit and narrow your future at each stage, that every decision you make is supposed to be based upon how you are going to make money when you ‘grow up’ (it’s a subliminal message throughout) – I’d be interested in asking kids the reasons for wanting to do things at different ages. When does money become a factor? Often kids want to do what one of their parents do (or someone in their family), and then maybe what their hero does (from books/TV etc) – but then gradually we become soaked in the idea of a career, money, status etc. We are certainly not told that it’s OK not to decide, to just live, to be a multipotentialite if you like! This is a message we need to take into schools! :)

    • Dan says:

      That’s a great idea, to ask kids the motivation behind their answers. It would be interesting to find out when money starts to matter. I’d guess it’s when kids are old enough to earn their own pocket money and they start to realise that one day they’re going to have to pay their own way through life, but I guess it varies depending on the environment you grow up in.

  9. Gisele says:

    My husband has been fixing cars since he was a child. He owned a car (and swapped out the tranny) before he was even old enough to drive. But he was smart in high school and the guidance counsellors seemed set on getting everyone to university. He bounced around university for a couple of years, not quite finding a niche that felt right before deciding on trade school to become, you guessed it, a mechanic. DUH. He’s brilliant at it, and it was so obvious, but not a valued path to the people giving the advice. What a dis-service.

  10. Dan says:

    Good for him for going back to his passion! University seems to be the ultimate goal in schools these days, but it’s not necessarily the best option for everyone, and some people are far better off without it.

  11. Dan says:

    Dan,

    If I was to recite the variety of jobs I’ve had over the last 40 years, it would take as long as this article! I’ve just discovered this site and the tribe, and am really really excited, because I am at a point, once again, where I am trying to figure out what direction to go in next.

    What I am getting is that I can design my life to include ALL of my interests (and generate a decent income). The first step is in accepting the way I am (multipotentialite). The next step for me is to dream big, and use my hindsight NOW to create a compelling future.

    Your article really takes me back to when I did make that first career choice (auto mechanic, really wanting to work on race cars), and how I keep trying to reclaim the enthusiasm and certainty I had when I was 14 or so. I now know that I don’t necessarily have to reclaim that, instead I can just take steps to include whatever it is I am enthusiastic about right NOW (and it isn’t being a mechanic).

    One of my goals is to be able to help others make their way to success by accepting who they are and utilizing their unique abilities to get to where they want to go!

    Thanks to both you and Emilie
    Dan

  12. Alexander says:

    Dan, I couldn’t agree more.

    There are some huge issues with asking “what do you want to be when you grow up!?”

    First of all, that we ask people so young!

    I still regret going to college so young like most other Americans. I didn’t know what I wanted, and although I wouldn’t take back my time there for anything, if students were forced to work for those 4 years, and then decide on college between 22-26 they would get much more out of it. And it would be worth the $120,000 USD I spent on it.

    I think there is 1 best asset for lost people: try everything.

    Seriously, try it all. Start a business, move across the world, date varied people, learn a new language, just do ANYTHING and see what sticks and what you love!

    After all, we’re all multipotentialites at heart, no?

    • Dan says:

      Hi Alex

      It would seem to make more sense to wait until you’re older before deciding on what to study. I wonder how it would work in practice.

      ‘Try everything’ is certainly sound advice! Thanks.

  13. Genni S says:

    I have to respectfully disagree here. We might be hearing “pick a career path” in general, but everything about the American school system encourages exactly the opposite.

    I’m currently living in France where they actually start specializing around 14 (students are divided into humanities and sciences at that point, either by choice or by force) whereas we have until we’re 20 in the states before we have to ‘buckle down’ and choose. I was so sick of ‘general education requirements’ by my third and fourth year of college that I wanted to vomit. Not to mention that a ton of college students change their major more than they change their underwear.

    Now I -and many of my collegues- have undergraduate degrees that could barely get us into the door at the ground level of most large companies. Now I’m spreading the word to my friends to use sites like yours and their amazing brains to become entrepreneurs!

  14. Dan says:

    Hey Genni

    So you think it’s better to start specialising earlier, to avoid procrastinating on making the decision?

    I can only speak from my experience, having been educated in the UK, but I know that a lot of people have expressed similar opinions about the US education system.

    Maybe it depends what school you go to.

  15. kathryn says:

    i don’t remember what i wanted to be at 13 but i do wish i had listened to my mom when i was in college. i can’t do anything about that now, but i do tell my daughters that they can do whatever they want in life and when they get tired of it then they can do something else! just save money, don’t spend more then they make so when they are my age if they want to retire or start another career they have the means to do so. (just hope they listen to their mom, more than i did to mine!!)

    • Dan says:

      That’s a great attitude, Kathryn. There’s nothing worse than parents pressuring their kids to do something they really don’t care about.

  16. Luisa says:

    I am Fourteen years old and in October our school will be sending us out to different companies,businesses etc.. to do work experience. Its June now and we’ve been told to look for placements already.Everyone else in my year seems to have already picked out a career but i have no idea what i am going to do with my life! I was thinking today about how unfair this system seems to be and how it just puts pressure on young people. I haven’t slept for days now due to stressing over my upcoming exams,career choices,bullies,friendship worries and how i look to other people. “Surely.” I can’t help but think. “I am too young to be this worried?” I’m still a kid. Everyone does stupid things at fourteen. What Teenagers are easily influenced and are sometimes stubborn or set in their ways. Teenage years are a hectic time in our lives and everyone has their own battles to fight. I agree with this article wholeheartedly. I can’t even decide on what to wear each morning let alone a career path! I have always worried about getting a job as i am terrible at maths and i suffer from mild dyslexia. I understand that teachers have a tough job (my mother is one and she constantly has to plan out lessons,correct homework,organise trips etc.. as well as look after my brother and i) but i believe that teachers could (and should!) be more supportive of students.I live in Scotland and our education system is currently going through changes and my year is the first group of pupils to experience this. We are under massive ammounts of pressure to succeed as the government has put millions of pounds in to these changes and our teachers are stressed out,overworked and are not well informed at all. My school is very overcrowded as well as it is the only catholic high school in our area. I doubt that the people in our school could make an informed decision on a career anyway. Most kids my age just want to go out and party rather than study and there is very little motivation to do well as it is.

    • Emilie says:

      Yikes! I feel for you, Luisa. It seems so silly to me for fourteen year olds to be expected to choose one thing to do for the rest of their lives! If you’re being forced to consider such things, I would highly recommend the book “How to Find Fulfilling Work” by Roman Krznaric. I just finished reading it and I’m going to be recommending it to every multipotentialite who has career questions. So good, and really applicable for us multipods.

      But don’t sweat it. Really, most of your peers aren’t going to end up doing what they’ve decided on now. Or if they do, they’ll wake up one day and wonder why they are in a field that they don’t like just because their 14-year-old self thought was a good idea?! It’s so ridiculous, thinking you know yourself well enough to make that sort of decision at 14. Yeesh. Just get through high school and then do what feels fun and challenging to you, even if it is many things simultaneously or one after another. Who says you can’t have multiple careers?

  17. Bob the scientist says:

    Honestly, choose anything you want. You will find painful parts you don’t like. Society has its fixed standards which fail in comparasion to what a person wants out of life. Do and learn the things that will allow you to achieve your personal goals (you make them,outside of the boxes made by society). Find something you would find exciting and follow through. if I went back, I wouldn’t change a thing. I might have taken more classes, but I know that I was dealing with to much stress as it was and would not do more! Good luck, live long and prosper.

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