“So, what is it you actually want to do?” is a question I’ve been asked probably hundreds of times.
From as young as primary school, I remember being asked during circle times what I wanted to be when I grew up. “Paediatrician,” I remember saying, probably because I had just learned what that word meant, and thought it would sound impressive coming from a nine-year-old. Cut to today, and I’m studying for a degree in humanities, which probably just about captures how useful that question is.
As we grow up, the number of times we are asked this question only increases. And, at least for me, my answer still feels just as false. Every time I’m asked, “What is it you want to do?” I still feel like a fraud when I attempt to respond.
At Christmas especially, the number of times we are asked this increases tenfold, as our extended families get together probably for the first time that year, and everyone is in a hurry to catch up on each other’s lives. As students, there is a particular kind of pressure wrapped up with being asked about our future career plans. Suddenly, it feels as though there is something to prove; that our lives are put-together, that we are not putting ourselves in ridiculous amounts of debt for nothing, and that we are using our expensive education for something worthwhile.
At every family gathering, I sit, anxiously waiting to be asked that dreaded question. When it is inevitably asked, not only is it anxiety-inducing, but it is also just depressing. It reminds us of the simple fact that our existence depends to a large degree on our ability to earn money for ourselves. And, if our future job prospects are not ground-breaking, ambitious, or highly paid, then we are made to feel as if they are not worth anything.
That we seem to be asked about our future plans even more during Christmas is doubly depressing: when we are supposed to be thinking about nothing but roast potatoes, chocolate yule logs, and TV specials, we are instead forced, against our will, to answer questions about our life choices thus far. Questions to which we probably don’t know the answers. We are reminded of that internship which we’re supposed to be looking for. And that, aside from our average-looking Linked Ins, we, really, are very under-prepared for any kind of career.
As young as primary school, children are encouraged to define their lives based on the jobs that they work. When we actually consider this fact, it starts to become much more troubling. Indeed, in an article in the New York Times, Adam Grant explains how when we define ourselves based on our jobs, our worth then depends on what we achieve.
While we are not consciously telling children that, unless they have a successful, well-paid, and ambitious job, they are essentially useless, this is certainly the message that they receive in their subconscious. Instead of asking children to define themselves in terms of their future careers, wouldn’t it be nice to ask them what kind of person they want to be when they grow up? Whether, for instance, they want to be happy, trustworthy, kind, or loving.
Perhaps this is just some kind of naive anti-capitalist fantasy. In order to survive, we do (unfortunately) need to work. Maybe adults are just preparing us for the inevitable when they ask us what we might want to be when we grow up. Rationally, I know that this is the case. But why doesn’t that stop me from seizing up when I’m asked? I immediately try to adopt a feigned ‘professional mode’, as I start regurgitating some possible career options, none of which I’m particularly passionate or excited about.
In times of crisis like these, I like to turn to Oprah, who put it so perfectly bluntly when she said, “Your job is not always going to fulfil you.” To a room full of graduates at the University of Southern California, Oprah herself confessed to the often-times unglamorous nature of work. “There will be some days that you might be bored, other days you might not feel like going to work at all – go anyway”.
Generation Z are characteristically ambitious people. Students now, more than ever, seem to be reaching for careers which are purposeful and fulfilling. Our expectations are higher than ever, and so, therefore, are the stakes when we are asked by our loved ones what we are thinking of doing in the future.
But perhaps we should learn a lesson or two from Oprah. Our lives are much more than our work. Apart from our careers, there are relationships, there is food, there is reading, there are sports, there is hope, there is grief, there is sadness, there is joy, there is family, and there are friends. It is okay to not know what you want to do when you grow up, because that is only a small part of your life. Life has a lot more to offer than just a successful career.