Elisabeth Stitt, parenting coach and owner of Joyful Parenting, ended a blog post with a powerful all-capped question: WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU GROW UP?
While the post was about helping our children with that question, I think her blog was secretly written for parents often silently asking that question of ourselves. Thank you, Elizabeth, for asking grown-ups what they want to be because I rethink and reevaluate this for myself frequently.
With respect to our kids, what I do know is this: Often we need to remind them that their answer is allowed to change many times over. We are allowed to pursue one dream and then exchange it for another that may or may not be remotely related — as so many of us have discovered several times over. And I know this: We need to be more honest with our kids AND with our selves.
Our kids think that even as 7th graders and certainly as 12th graders and then for sure as college seniors that they should know; they MUST know. They must have that career precisely defined. Not just a business owner – but a developer of a new app (that will make gazillions of dollars as they market it to the entire world). Not just a cook – but a Thai fusion chef with a touch of Southern Brazil. Not just a doctor – but a right big-toe surgeon and only for children ages 7 through 15. It has to be exact. They can dream but they need to dream big and they need to dream in exacting detail.
And yet from preschool through college, they are still children/young adults. They are still exploring a world of job titles and possibilities that they cannot possibly even know yet to explore. If it’s not a strange job title in a movie credit or something they’d read about in a book or see in a TV series, then they likely don’t know a bazillionth of the possibilities out there. Even at my age (ancient per my teens), I still meet people with jobs I never knew existed and I am fascinated – truly fascinated – by how that person found their (current) life’s work. And as you know, it might, but rarely involves a college degree in the major that led to that particular job that they are still doing years or decades later. In fact, there couldn’t possibly be a major just for that “weird position” and yet someone clearly needs to be them and to do just what they do. But how in the world did they get there?
Let them explore. Let them be right about their current passions. Let them be “almost right”. Let them be grateful to discover that they were so incredibly wrong. That, ewww, they’d hate being a “Door Knob Salesperson” because they never realized how many doors they’d have to knock on to make the business work. Or how lonely it would be. Or where they’d need to live. Or . . . or . . . or . . . So many “ors”! (And I am not knocking door knob salespeople!)
We are experts at encouraging our little ones to explore, to go on the most amazing treasure hunts in and around the house. No fear. Just discovery and joy. And then, just as they are starting to explore the adult world of life and meaning, we tell them to stop. To find something and stick to it. And as they get older, it’s less "find" and more "stick".
We need to encourage new treasure hunts for our growing kids. Perhaps the one path that we thought improbable might actually lead somewhere else because we simply supported them on their journey and gave them options along the way — not “outs”, but options that could help that journey or allow them to veer left into something totally unexpected – a new passion. Isn’t now the right age to discover without the fear of “failure” (which, by the way, may indeed lead to the “AHA!” of success)? If we at all encourage that sense of being allowed to fail (or "dread") now, to realize they got the dream “wrong”, imagine how it translates when a job doesn’t work out later. (Actually, you might not have to imagine.) They might already feel empowered to mourn a loss briefly but then be ready to try something else.
We also need to give them the freedom to do something less grand and more prosaic than the fantastic dreams of childhood. We must not allow our children to feel less than wonderful because they thought we were counting on them to pursue the big dream, to be the star player . . . let them discover and define “grand” in the years to come. (The show cannot go on without the entire cast; the surgery cannot be performed without the team; etc. I recently met a young man pursuing his dream to research soil around the world. Talk about grand on so many levels and yet … dirt?? He’s going to study dirt? Yes. And, at least for now and hopefully for years to come, he has an incredible passion to do so. Turns out our ecosystem may be grateful for his passion.)
Maybe career paths are like color choices.
My younger daughter loved every color – in turn. She started with pink. All pink. Then it was definitely red. It shifted to yellow and sky blue and then purple. I could not keep up. I gave up. I had to ask, almost daily. As she pushed through her career dreams in high school, it was the same rainbow, but this time of ideas. Until she landed on something totally unexpected and then she was one determined teen. So determined that when I enrolled her in a class just for that, she balked. Scared. No way. It was a dark and stormy fight as we drove to that first night of class. Afterwards, she asked to go back and took that class for 5 more semesters. Turns out that she discovered a variant in the class that she loved even more. Turns out that she discovered that she had previously unknown and quite impressive talents. Turns out that she is ready to explore college and careers from a few new angles. And since training her service dog, she has even more ideas on how to combine passions. She’s not stopping. She has not dug in her heels so firmly that she can fail. She’s loved the rainbow of possibilities.
My older daughter has always loved blue. Just blue. Always blue. But blue with a caveat – because blue has many different hues. There were so many “duh, mom” moments when I picked out a shirt or a paint color or even a notebook with a blue cover and yikes, I was way off. “Not thaaaaaat blue!”, she’d cry out at me with eyes rolling. (And yes, “thaaaaaat” has far more than the one legitimate Oxford Dictionary syllable and spelling.) She has kept to her 2 majors and 2 minors solidly through college and then over this last year – her SENIOR year! – at some point, she discovered a seemingly completely different passion – but not really; just not exactly her majors . . . or her minors. College wasted? No way! Lessons learned. And a slight left turn. My gut is that she will stumble across something that combines all (most?) of her passions. That she will move toward that something with yet a slightly different shade. All I can do is encourage her not to fear the pressure of getting the “right job”. And to listen to my grad school message to her: “If you don’t know, don’t go." <pause> "Yet.” To allow herself to explore and not expect the perfect job but to find one that fascinates her, that leads her to . . . well, does she need to know exactly where yet? So many blues . . .
When I was their age? I thought I wanted to be a classical musician. But the truth was I was too chicken to try. I thought I wanted to be a writer. I thought I wanted to be a teacher. Later, I truly wanted to be a psychologist. Who knew that I could and would find different combinations of those careers and today be an entrepreneur? Was that my dream then? It’s my dream now.
My girls have been lucky enough to witness the growing up of their mother, to watch her not always smoothly (?) move and shift as I faced seemingly insurmountable personal and professional challenges. They know, I sincerely hope, that their professional life will most likely be a journey – sometimes amazing, sometimes not. Perspective in the moment is not entirely clear.
My message has always been: Be yourself. You will never fail at that. And you will find what it is you want to do even as you may re-decide it many times over.