For a lot of us, the decision of what course or specialty to follow usually got made when we were still teens. However well calculated or arbitrary they might have been, they often set us on a somewhat deterministic path in life. With time, we discover more of who we are, what we like, and what our strengths and weaknesses are. Those later stage discoveries either reinforce the choices we had made earlier, or come into conflict with whom we had grown to become.
Much of the existential angst for young adults centre around the issue of what to do with one’s life. But it always strike me as somewhat counterintuitive, how we have been brought up, and parsed through a system that seem to facilitate, if not actively promote, a somewhat backward way of assessing and arriving at that vital decision. The issue on hand is really the conflict and compromises illustrated by this graph, courtesy of Bud Caddell.
I will not generalize, although I believe this is a common rite of passage for many of us. While still in high school, we choose, or at least look forward to learning more about a field, based on our own social upbringing, family influences, our own interests. But more importantly, we looked at fields of specialty, extrapolated them into careers, and measured them up against prestige, salary, and employment statistics. It was no coincidence that while I was in high school in the late 90s and early 2000s, half of my graduating class went on to study engineering of some kind – the most popular sub-discipline being that of computer engineering. Even though a few years later, the same group could have easily chosen another hot field, finance anyone?
So as a first step in our tentative journey to find our calling, we were guided to look for careers that pay well.
Then, picturing myself sitting through a mandatory guidance counseling session back in high school, our counselors would glance at our report cards and promptly informed us of the areas that we could potentially excel in university. This happened in university too. One of my friends was repeatedly told by our career guidance office that with terrible accounting and finance marks like hers, she could forget about going into banking, and should try for human resources instead. Disgusted with the dismissive attitude, and even more horrified at the prospect of getting slotted into a field she had no interest in, she transferred to another school immediately. She was very brave. And it paid off. She proceeded to complete summer internships at numerous top I-banks, and now thriving as an associate in a well-known wealth management firm.
So, during the second round, we often dwelled and obsessed over things that we did well, and tried to make ourselves even better in them. More often than not, at this stage, our search for that personally and financially fulfilling career has come to a brief end.
Then, quarterlife, or mid-life crisis hit: we wake up one morning and realize we don’t actually like what we do for a living, despite the status, the financial security, and the glossy exterior of a life. Trying desperately to find some wiggle room, we see the lives we had set ourselves up for required financial commitments that do not allow for sudden and unplanned exits, so perhaps it’s not really that secure after all! With aging parents, dependent children, and possibly equally high-strung spouses, where to turn? We seek solace on therapist couches, or more economically, at our local Borders’ self-help section. Crammed with personality, parachute, career aptitude books, they are all there to help you answer that million dollar question: what do I actually want to do?
To me, the order of this exercise is all wrong. It would’ve made much more sense to start from this very last, but terribly vital question of what we actually want to do, layer on the things we do well, find a plausible interaction of the first two, and match it against things the world can pay us for.
Of course, the difficulty of not knowing what one wants to do at an early age is a sizable obstacle, which is why many settle, and may even prefer the solution offered by the order described earlier. But it should not stop us from striving to address this well meaning, highly prevalent, but nevertheless faulty compromise many had come to accept as the way things are. The longer we leave this question unanswered, the more monstrous the scope of the problem will become, and the most costly it will be to resolve.
picture source: sheriktek