What do you want to be when you grow up? And how do you know?
I asked these questions of my small group this week. My motive was a selfish one: I wanted to know how other people approached this challenge of structuring life, making plans, pursuing ambitions, and finding fulfillment—assuming it’s possible.
Half of the room stared back at me with dumbfounded expressions. I assume they, like me, hadn’t been asked that question since they were very young. At some point in our adolescence the question shifts from “What do you WANT to do” to “What ARE you going to do,” which is a very different question. The former question is open-ended and provocative, as it calls us to imagine a happier (though sometimes riskier) vocational reality. The latter query implies that you have the answers, that you know who who are, what your passions are, and how the puzzle pieces will fit together. That’s a lot of pressure.
The funny thing is that, as a culture, we shroud both questions with flawed thinking. We approach the problem of vocation linearly: You like XYZ, so you go to school, learn how to do XYZ, and get a job doing XYZ. But what if you don’t know what you like? What if you don’t know what to study to best achieve your goals? What if there aren’t job descriptions that match your passion? Here are three fallacies blocking us from discovering and defining our vocation, as well as the video that prompted this blog post.
Fallacy #1: That we should have a passion we know we want to pursue.
For years I thought something was wrong with me. I have always craved diverse experiences to help myself grow, an approach to life which many might argue is healthy. Nevertheless I watched in envy as others focused their efforts and enthusiasm toward mastery of individual skill. I neither knew how to do this nor could imagine limiting myself to a single discipline. Apparently, though, I’m not alone. William Damon in The Path to Purpose says that only 20% of people know the passions they want to pursue from an early age. This means that the other 80% of us spend a lot of time thinking we should be in the 20%, racking our brains for the single passion that supposedly will guide our lives. But why should we limit ourselves? We live in a world where individuals increasingly switch careers, sometimes multiple times. More people are pursuing different interests simultaneously, helped along by technology. Opportunities abound for learning new skills, largely thanks to the internet, where we see Youtube turning cooking newbies into culinary masters, Lynda.com turning Luddites into Adobe aficionados, and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offering college-level instruction at no cost. In other words, there is no need to pressure ourselves into a single passion to pursue.
Fallacy #2: Believing our BA determines vocation.
I will never forget the night when my high school guidance councilor asked a group of 50 parents how many of them were working in the same field as their college majors. Only two of them raised their hands. Why then, given this telling display, do we put so much emphasis on college major decisions? The only constant is change, after all. And how are students supposed to know what they want unless they get to taste the real world, wrestle with its ups and downs, and structure their education accordingly? We have it backwards: students instead spend all their time in high school jumping through hoops and taking tests just to get into good colleges, but all without any idea of what their education is for or how it will be applied in their lives. Then they are told to focus their interests into a course of study to prepare for work which most of them have never experienced. Why do we do this, especially if we are going to change our career trajectories anyway? Like the councilor said, everyone can just relax about majors.
Fallacy #3: Believing that school makes us experts.
Many people rely solely on formal learning environments for gaining the necessary expertise to approach their vocation. But as with the first fallacy, too many students cannot structure their education around passions they don’t have, and as with the second, students rarely can rely on their major to guide their career choices. Sarah Stein Greenberg puts the problem this way in this great video from Wired:
If I told you that if you exercised every day for the next four years so that you would stay fit and healthy for life, you’d think I was crazy; but this is exactly how we approach learning in college.
We think that four years of college is sufficient education to get us through life. But why four years? It’s arbitrary when you think about it. More than this, learning through experience is, in many ways, much more powerful than classroom lessons. We need to see ourselves as life-long learners, willing to experiment and fail, wherein we learn best. “Expert” is a relative term anyway, so does it help to assume we will ever become experts, constantly judging ourselves by nebulous standards and an antiquated educational model?
Breaking free of these fallacies will likely take some time. As individuals, this involves upsetting misconceptions; unlearning can often be harder than learning. It means a paradigm shift, a reorientation of how we see ourselves as learners and workers. As communities, it means asking questions like, “How might we help people find their vocations through experience as well as school?” and “How might we re-imagine school and workplaces so that they better foster learning and passion development?” The answers to these questions are complex and will likely be fraught with concerns over cost, efficacy, and fear of change. But imagine a world in which students try their hands at real world work, understand how their education is preparing them to solve problems, and structure their own learning around a mission, instead of a major…
The Stanford d.School is currently asking many of these questions. Here is a video of two of the d.School leaders discussing the question: How might we design our lives? I really appreciate their posture toward the problem, and I gained some good insights from their conversation. Please share your thoughts on the video and the post below.