Ages 5-9. You pick your sport: basketball, softball, golf, tennis, frolf, soccer, football, swimming, dance, gymnastics, fly-fishing, lacrosse, diving, cross-country, track, long-jump, high-jump, discus, baseball, horse-racing.
Ages 14-18. You pick your electives: pottery, art, mechanics, robotics, graphic design, newspaper committee, choir, band, orchestra, drawing, decoy design,* software coding, video production, underwater basket weaving.
Ages 19-22. You pick your major: communications, pre-med, finance, anthropology, chemical engineering, English, theatre, nursing, pre-law, accounting, marketing, history, psychology, public relations, education, sociology, human resources, bagpiping.
Ages 22+. An entire career.
Imagine a classic Charles Dickens novel*, the cliche of the poor blacksmith living penny to penny, mercilessly training his son with fire and hammers to be the next best blacksmith. He wants a better life for the boy, but the only way he knows how to provide is to pass along the skills of.. you guessed it — a blacksmith.
“Back in the day,” you were simply handed down whatever knowledge, skills, and resources were passed down to you by your respective elders. For example, my parents have four generations in the beverage wholesale business, specifically beer. They most likely were even bootlegging during the prohibition. My dad, a child of nine, had started out in the industry along with every single one of his brothers (five), who eventually veered off and either started their own distribution businesses or joined the corporate scene. There were no options, and there didn’t need to be since they were all happy to follow in their father’s footsteps…who had followed in their father’s footsteps…who had followed in…. etc. My brother, who is now about four years older than me, works for my dad at their own beverage wholesaler.
However, for our generational timeline and for me specifically, we have taken for granted, and have not even noticed, just how much this is changing. Sure, you hear of the renowned author giving birth to a baby and teaching them how to write and read right out of the womb, hoping they will carry on the prodigal legacy of writing the next Carrie or Hunger Games, giving them a little push in the right direction and equipping them with every possible skill they will need to carry themselves. However, as never before precedented, with college rates exponentially increasing and fewer trade workers, people are able to choose any career path they deem interesting. This is a severely frightening concept. At the age of 18, you are supposed to understand your inner self enough to know what you want to do for the rest of your life? When your parents sat you down and said, “The whole world is ahead of you, you can do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it,” this was not only a cause of the “participation trophy” generation where our parents made us feel special, but ironically enough, this became a reality as soon as we hit 18, and we could, quite literally, do anything that we wanted to do. How frightening.
I realize this is not any new revelation and would also like to point out that this concept is catered to the privilege of the middle class and up. Some, unfortunately, are not able to afford to go to college nor have their parents’ support to go. Add it to the list of things we need to practice gratitude towards. However, almost anyone who does enter the four-year university world feels overwhelmed and confused about who they are and what motivates them. Especially post the 1990s and into the current era, the trend of following in your parents’ footsteps is dying out, slowly but surely, as information, skills, and resources become more easily attainable outside of your immediate circle and college is more accessible. I bet if my grandma Laticia had nine kids today, only one or two of those would actually go into the beer business and the rest would be doctors, social workers, teachers, lawyers, etc.
So now that we have entered the age of options, things become both easier… and harder. It’s almost like we want fewer options to determine the rest of our lives. For example, how I pick movies to watch with my friends: “Okay, pick your top three favorites, and I will pick my first favorite from your favorites,” because scrolling through Netflix and agreeing on a single form of entertainment with 3+ people is nearly impossible. We sometimes…just want less. But I don’t foresee this going away, almost ever, with the modern technology that we have.
So the question becomes, how do we narrow down and self-reflect? How do we pick our top favorite, from our top favorites, from our top favorites? It starts with pattern recognition and behavior awareness. These signals can come from any compartment of your life if you just take a second to step back and recognize the patterns that are taking place. This includes, but is not limited to: your shopping carts, people you admire, podcasts you listen to, shows you watch, books you read, and my personal favorite, the “envy pang.”
We all online shop probably more than we care to admit — take a look at your receipts and your shopping carts (like any good online shopper, the shopping cart is simply used as a basket to hold all of your favorite items, and then to buy later once you feel more financially secure to buy a slinky, charcoal toothpaste, a self-help book, and ten summer crop tops). Notice what you are buying. What do your orders look like? What remains in your shopping cart and what doesn’t? In the bigger picture – what do you spend your MONEY on? This is a great first signature of your values and priorities. To give a personal example, a lot of my Amazon shopping cart is books. Just the last two books I ordered can give clues to any unbiased third party — a look into “Sara.” I had just ordered Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Both books are largely based on relationships with other people, emotional intelligence, and psychology. My other top items include environmentally friendly products such as a bamboo toothbrush, reusable straw, a fake tree, etc. Interestingly enough, I used to work in environmental sustainability… but what came first, the chicken or the egg? Maybe some of you are obsessed with the latest and greatest Apple product? video game? pet supplies? books about famous people? books about history? It’s a start.
Now, think about the people you “follow,” both in the social media sense and the IRL sense. Who do you retweet? Who do you follow around? Personally, my entire Twitter (fake Twitter) feed is taken up by Elon Musk, Lena Dunham, and social awareness/politically charged memes. So, to summarize, a businessman who cares about the environment; a feminist icon who happens to be a writer, author, and director; and memes, just because that is what Twitter is for. Now, who do you follow in your day-to-day life? Whose LinkedIn do you stalk the most, and whose career do you mimic? Do people in your field interest you, or is it those people who are external? Are you a doctor who becomes intrigued by the progression of your attorney friend’s career?
How could we forget the entertainment of the world? Podcasts, movies, and Netflix. Although most shows regarding the working world are extremely romanticized and dramatized (exhibit A: Grey’s Anatomy), there is a key to why those shows interest you. How else could you sit, stalemate for 6+ hours, staring at a glowing box? One of my best friends, and roommate in college, only cared to binge-watch shows such as Law & Order, How to Get Away with Murder, 13 Reasons Why…etc. You can see why she dabbled in the major of sociology of law and criminology for a while. She was fascinated by the art of investigation, problem-solving, riddles, and psychology. And now that podcasts are the new music, pay attention to your key searches. Is it “health,” “education,” “crimes,” “economics,” etc.? Once I started to notice that my searches mostly involved psychology in the workplace and female-oriented podcasts, (WorkLife with Adam Grant at the top of my history searches along with Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour), it made sense why I was drawn to the field that I am in.
Lastly, and most importantly, be attuned with your “envy pang.” It is that feeling you get, such as a little tightening in your chest, when someone says they are studying a topic, receiving an award, progressing his or her career in a certain direction, and your own heart pangs because you wish it were you. This is not a feeling of being less successful; this tenseness comes from a subconscious desire that you were doing those exact same things because you know you would either be great at it, or it is something that fascinates you. For example, your friend says, “I took a semester off and decided to study for the LSAT.” Your breath turns sharp. You want to be studying for the LSAT. You would make an amazing lawyer. In the meantime, you are working as a marketing coordinator, where you do great work, but when someone else says they are the new marketing director for Google, your heart stays silent.
No matter how many self-help books you buy on Amazon, quizzes you take, blogs you read, or therapists you pay for, you don’t have to actually know “where you see yourself in 10 years,” because the ultimate, dark, and best-kept secret is that no one does. Don’t let the words “entire career” scare you – let it inspire and propel you forward.
* I went to a small-town high school – yes, there was a class where you made hunting and fishing decoys.
** Great Expectations is one of my favorite books of all time.
“Envy Pang” is a completely made-up phrase to describe the physiological reaction of anxiety, heart racing, and envy when someone talks about a topic and it resonates with your own goals or interests.