Of Careers and Life Paths (But What Should I Be?)

When I was in sixth grade, I, like the rest of the students in my class, was sent to the guidance counselor’s office to take a computerized test to help decide what I might want to do with my life—what careers were a match for my personality, my likes and dislikes, my strengths and weaknesses. 

I clearly remember the anticipation of sitting down in front of the computer, of excitedly clicking answers to each question, practically bouncing in my seat as I imagined what magical career choice was my destiny. Then the test was over, and the dot-matrix printer screamed and screeched as it printed my results. Mr. Albright tore the sheets from the printer, looked them over, handed them to me, and sent me back to class. I accepted my results with near-trembling hands and reviewed them as I walked the halls to return to science class. This was it. A list of all the things I could do with my life, a piece of paper that would tell me how I would succeed in the future.

And then I read the words.

Sanitation worker? Sanitation worker? SANITATION WORKER? 

Before I go further, I’ll make a statement for the record. I have utmost respect for the sanitation workers in my life. I am so very grateful that there are people willing to do this job and that they work year-round in all sorts of weather to ensure my trash is removed from my property each week and that we live in clean and sanitary conditions in our little corner of the world. I cannot stress this enough. I am grateful.

But this is not what an eleven-year-old girl with an imagination the size of the Andromeda Galaxy wants to envision for her life. Of all the careers I’d ever imagined, sanitation worker was not one. Teacher? Sure. Every kid probably considers that one at one point or another. Teachers play such an important role in our early years. Doctor, veterinarian, marine biologist, archeologist, author, singer, actor? All of those were futures I dreamed of, careers I longed to follow. But sanitation worker?

I was nearly inconsolable, convinced that perhaps I wasn’t as smart as I previously thought, that my A’s and B’s didn’t really mean anything after all, that my talents were nonexistent, that I wasn’t really going to have a career in science or the arts.

Fast-forward twenty-eight years later and laugh with me. Laugh and laugh and laugh. Because that test was complete and utter bullshit. Rubbish through and through. I’m almost angry that a school administration would dare to crush a child’s dreams in such a manner. Is it worth guiding children toward careers they might enjoy and in which they would likely excel? Of course! But at what cost? A computer is a poor substitute for human interaction, and if I’d sat down and talked with a teacher or guidance counselor at that time instead, I’m willing to bet that sanitation worker would never have been brought up as a possibility. Anyone who knows me knows, while I enjoy routine to an extent, I utterly crave the new, the unfamiliar, maybe even the unattainable. I’m not wired for routine.

Ironic, since I cope with chronic anxiety when faced with change. But life enjoys nothing if not being ironic.

And so far in my life? So far I have been a marine biology graduate, a pharmaceutical microbiologist, a technical writer, an animal welfare administrator, and a marketing director. It seems it took me a while to decide what I should really “be.” (Or maybe I’m just intent on working through ALL of those careers I once hoped for?)

So I’m cautious when my own kids consider their futures. I’m careful to nurture their dreams and encourage them to dive deep into the things they love. No one should settle for doing what someone else says is right for them. I often wonder if I would have made author as a career sooner had I really, truly believed it was a viable option.

Make no mistake. I’m eternally grateful to have had the opportunities I had in my life. How many people can say they’ve worked on a wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphin project in college? How many can say they’ve spent a summer on a boat just feet from entire families of joyful, leaping marine mammals? That they could extend a hand outward and easily touch one? (I didn’t. That’s not legal. But I could have.) I cherish that experience, as I cherish so many others.

I still have that piece of paper—the results from the sixth-grade “aptitude test” to help me determine what I should be. I keep it as a reminder. No one in the world can tell me what I should be, or what I should do with my life, with my time on this earth.

I, alone, have that power.

So what about you? Are you doing what you dreamed you might? Are you helping others to reach the path that will take them where they want to go? Let’s have this conversation because, all too often, I fear we’re pushed into a path we’re never meant to be on—stuck in a circle, forever asking “But what should I be?”

When what we really should be asking is, “What do I want to be?”

So what do you want to be?

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