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.