When you were little and someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, what did you answer?
Doctor, veterinarian, firefighter, teacher, athlete?
Those are among the handful of choices that children typically mention, a mere drop in the bucket of opportunities that actually await them.
Which raises a question: with thousands of career possibilities, why do you think you made the choice you did, and why was it pretty much the same as other children?
Did you guess it? Your choices were limited because you could only have chosen from professions you’d been exposed to; most likely your idea would have come from the people and professions you knew.
It’s interesting that your choice wouldn’t have been determined much by your generation. Fatherly conducted a survey of 1,000 kids and found that choices have pretty much remained the same for decades.
How can this be? I recently had a great conversation with E. Darlene Rogers (founder of STEM Educational Fund) and we agreed that your choice would typically depend on what you know – in other words, what kinds of jobs you’d learned about during your short life.
While there are likely some jobs you’d be aware of but wouldn’t choose – jobs involving stinky garbage in summer, for example – it really boils down to one point: you can’t consider doing something you’ve never even heard about.
Really, How Important is Exposure??
So back to my conversation with Darlene, which turned a bit philosophical. We agreed that we all possess unique natures containing strengths and abilities that can, if nurtured, propel us along on a path towards happiness and, dare I say it, even greatness.
The problem is that most of us have never learned to pay attention to ourselves that way. We’ve never learned to explore and see who we really are and think about what would actually make us (as opposed to everyone else we’re following) happy.
This leaves us with little choice but to choose from a tiny list of possibilities, that small sphere of childhood experience.
What Makes You Happy?
Truth be told, our choice is often based on factors that won’t necessarily bring us the happiness we want. Here’s a case in point. Darlene said that when she was a teen and thinking about what she wanted to be, she studied a list of possible careers. Naturally, she checked out the highest salaried ones first. (Who wouldn’t?)
Since Computer Scientist was the top paying job on the list, Darlene decided that she would become a computer scientist. Easy, right? It seemed to be a great choice, since her brother was already on that path and loving it. The problem came when she began studying his introductory books and found them so dull, they almost put her to sleep. Great career for the brother, lousy profession for her!
She eventually chose business management, pursuing that in college and then founding and running (and enjoying) her own company. But notice the word eventually. It wasn’t a straight path, and it definitely wasn’t a look-at-a-list- slam-dunk. What’s more, she says that she might never have gone in that direction if her father hadn’t been an entrepreneur. Exposure!
And yet this story isn’t over, because as we talked, we agreed that we often find ourselves saying “gosh, I could have done that!” This isn’t uncommon as people mature, but how much better if we all could have serious exposure to a variety of professions, with time to try them out and see what fit. We might have found that special career, the one that we were uniquely suited to do in which we could develop our special talents and abilities.
How about you? Do you relate to the idea that if your unique nature were given the lead (and you had the exposure), you could eventually find great happiness in what you do? It probably wouldn’t be your sister’s path or Uncle Harry’s – because it would be uniquely yours.
To connect the dots on that thought: many of our unique talents and abilities are just waiting for the opportunity to come alive, grow, and flourish. When you think of it like that, you might see that this is a journey that's worth taking.
It's Our Destiny -- Will We Take It or Leave It?
I have always been drawn to the ocean. One of my favorite childhood pastimes was building sand castles, and I learned to swim, sail, and scuba dive all because I wanted to be in or around it. The energy of the ocean, the weather, the roaring surf, the fish, the coral, and all that unknown!
But when it was time to choose a college and major, what did I do? I defaulted. My mother had been an English Major and I loved to read, so I defaulted to English Major. Ho-hum.
How did I do? My average was a boring, middle-of-the-road C because I wasn’t on fire about English literature. Looking back, I think it was pure luck I even got a C! But when I felt the excitement of diving, for example, of discovering the unknown deep below the waves while spending weeks on board a boat, well. That left me speechless.
What are You Drawn To?
If you're doing exactly what you’re meant to do, you are one lucky person and I have to ask – when and how were you exposed to it and how did you know it was just the thing for you? Please leave your answer in the comments below. You are one of the few!
But if your current profession isn’t your dream job, can you create a mental and sensory picture of what you really love doing? If you can, I have another question for you. What career allows you to do that?
Where's Your Rub?
Ah, but there's so often a rub in that dream career -- something negative you perceived about it that may have kept you from it. Do you see a rub in something you might love doing? If I’d even known about Oceanography as a child, Science itself would have been the rub because Science, to me, was the sum of my experience with dissecting frogs. Yuck! See? It all goes back to exposure.
In fact, while researching for this post I was very surprised to discover that some people actually like dissecting frogs … and not just willful, pulling-legs-off-spiders kinds of people, either.
According to Mental Floss:
There are many surgeons who say that they first discovered their life’s passion standing over a dissected frog in a middle or high school biology class.
So okay, being a doctor wouldn’t have been my thing. But it never occurred to me that dissecting frogs wasn’t an integral part of all Science, just a piece of the bigger picture called Science. In fact, I was never exposed to the bigger picture, so I wasn’t able to make the connection to that ocean I loved so much.
So let me ask that question again: what, in general, are you drawn to? What would you like to spend your time doing? What would it smell like, feel like, look like?
Your Bold New Career
Like most of us, what you see as your bold new career might only be your next step. You might get close and say, “but gee, this isn’t exactly what I imagined.” No problem! In fact, that’s to be expected, and that reaction will result in a bit of a turn towards another direction. Then you can take your next step.
And with each step, you’ll be getting closer.
Your ‘next step’ is always the most important step and the truth is that you will not get to where you want to go if you don’t take it. Each step will help you test your choice and refine it, so the next step after that takes you even closer to your prize. Reminds me of the truism that the journey is what’s important, not the destination. (Boy, is that a hard one to learn!)
Of course living like that requires vulnerability. But as anyone who's done it will tell you, the rewards are well worth the vulnerability. In fact, living vulnerably can become a very happy state of being.
Going Back to 9, 8, or even 5 Years Old
Educator and author Erin Twamley cites that when 5-year-olds are asked to draw a scientist, both boys and girls will draw men and women equally but by age 8 a whopping 70% of both will draw a man. So what does that statistic mean for you?
It means that when you were 8 years old, you most likely would have drawn a scientist as a man -- or put another way, you would have believed that only boys could grow up to be scientists.
No big deal if you’re male, right? But if you’re female, oh my, you would have crossed that possibility off your list without even realizing it, just like I did because I thought dissecting frogs was gross.
So if you’re not in your dream job now doing just what you want to do, what can you do? Since we can’t go backwards (and might not want to even if we could), perhaps you could rethink some of your beliefs, those ideas on which we base so many of our actions.
Let's Get Deep!
What if you unknowingly ruled out science because you were a girl – or because you thought dissecting frogs was gross? If you consider that some of the beliefs and opinions you hold today were formed based on things like lack of exposure or subconscious stereotypes, doesn’t it make sense to revisit them?
That’s a tall order, I realize. But if you do that, you’ll be able to begin to discover other professions that might be a great fit for you. Once you open your mind in new ways, you’ll be taking your next step on your path to happiness and possibly even greatness.
What can you do with your new ideas? Since this is written during COVID, you may be aware of emerging opportunities for new directions. A sort of "nothing is normal, so now what?"
For one, you could volunteer in a career space that holds new promise. As we emerge from our home-caves, we'll see a lot of people in need. This will provide many ways you could step out.
In the process you’ll make up for any previous lack of exposure, giving yourself what you never received. What an empowering opportunity.
Who Will You Become?
Many people today see the pandemic as an opportunity for a sort of Phoenix experience -- for our world and for us as individuals.
When I picture the Phoenix I see a powerful creature emerging from the ashes of "what might have been" and "if only I had". I see it as an opportunity that always - every moment of every day - awaits each and every one of us.
Unlikely? Just think about the many unlikely transformations in this existence!
Why this Post, Why Now?
The premise for this post came out of my conversation with Darlene; her afterschool program served as the backdrop. Darlene’s program affords young minority girls the opportunity of exposure, knowledge, and growth while they’re still young. It levels the playing field for girls in challenging situations such as homelessness by exposing them to STEM careers and empowering them to choose and excel in a satisfying profession.
So, if you choose to begin your own personal exploration, you can enjoy knowing that others – children with so many years ahead of them – are doing the same. It’s a new take on “We’re all in this together!”
We’ll continue exploring positive possibilities and career options in the months to come – we hope you’ll join us.