The Christmas break was quite turbulent for my eighteen-year-old daughter home from her first semester away at college in California. She was having her first career crisis.
As a child she harbored a real mixed bag of aspirations, the earliest to become a dancing police officer, later a veterinarian, and for a good deal of her high school years an attorney. Along the way she realized she liked psychology and decided to major in it as a pre-law degree. Seemed like a good plan.
After being on campus only a couple months, she saw The Cove http://www.thecovemovieuk.com/, an Oscar-winning documentary that exposes the gruesome treatment of dolphins, which are hunted for the dolphin entertainment industry and their meat. The film’s impact on her was profound. She stopped eating meat and decided to become a filmmaker, a program of study not offered at her institution so she instead substituted it for film studies, the highly intellectual cousin of film production.
By the time she got home for the holidays and was trying to finalize her spring schedule amidst all the Christmas cake baking that was going on, she realized she may not really want to be a filmmaker, and she certainly did not want to be a film studier. In the days before she got back to school, she drove herself into near delirium contemplating what courses she should take, what major she should select (yes, psychology was now out the door), and just what she should do with her life. This was further complicated because she’d had a challenging time settling into her first semester. Her confidence rattled, she started to question her usual standing as a straight-A student who excelled at everything.
She settled on environmental science, another high school course she enjoyed. She would pursue the policy and analysis concentration. But within weeks after returning to school, she became uncertain if this was even the right major for her, and last week, in a drama-filled, two-hour conversation punctuated with tears, she confided to me that she did not know what to major in and that she may never (in her entire life “never”) find the right career.
At this point I had to take the DVR off of pause, turn off the television, and settle in for a mammoth career-counseling session. As we talked, what I had suspected for a while was confirmed. She, like so many of us, was willing to put her dreams up for sale if the program of study she thought she wanted to pursue was too inconvenient: too long, too hard, or both. Her difficulty with selecting a major was that several careers had been ejected from her pool of possibilities because of their “inconvenient” status. This included any degree that required study beyond a master’s, including of course numerous careers in the medical field. Then there were those careers that called on her to do extensive math and science courses, with which she’s had a love-hate relationship. Then there were careers that required sound critical thinking and analytical skills, which for the first time she doubted her grasp of. In the end, a plethora of careers had been jettisoned from realm of the possible to that of the absolutely unlikely. And this, alas, was really her crisis. One to which I related completed.
When I moved to the United States from Jamaica to attend college, I’d planned on becoming a psychologist. I also loved the humanities, subjects like history, literature, and art, but had no clue how these could be made into a career that I could justify to my father back in Jamaica who was using his hard-earned money to pay for my education. Did not know a great deal about psychology, but somehow it felt right—that is until I realized that it took about the same amount of time as becoming a medical doctor! And to my eighteen-year-old self, that was an eternity.
I briefly played with the notion of becoming an architect—I loved art and houses so why not?—until I realized the major was housed in the School of Engineering.
What did that have to do with designing houses? I took one look at the curriculum, the physics, math and statistic courses, and architecture went to the same crowded graveyard that so many of my daughter’s potential careers would go a generation later.
I also loved office supplies. Nothing made me happy like a pile of pens, notebooks, rolls of tape, markers, even bottles of glue. And I adored making lists or charts—anything that helped me to organize anything else. So I ended up majoring in marketing—a tolerable enough program that would put me in an office somewhere with lots of paper and pens.
The irony is that in the end I was so discontented having not pursued something I loved, I ended up returning to school, taking some more undergrad courses, and completing a master’s then a doctorate in English literature then a second master’s in creative writing. All this took even longer than the doctorate in psychology from which I had fled as if I’d seen a blood sucking soucouyant, and required a degree of intellectual stamina that would have propelled me through any engineering program.
So armed with my personal story of career tragedy and redemption, I told her for the zillionth time that she can’t be afraid. She can’t believe that she is meant to suffer in an unfulfilling job, and she can’t put her dreams up for sale.
I found every way of bringing this point home: anecdotes about friends who had found success as well as those who had grappled with failure. But maybe my best ace in the hole, the one that made her pause the longest, was when I said, “Don’t end up retiring at sixty-five (or sixty-eight the way things are looking now) saying I spent forty years doing something I kinda liked versus thirty-five years doing something I loved.” What in blazes in four or five years in the scheme of your life? Why put your dreams up for sale to the bidder offering the fewest years investment in preparation?
My daughter and I ended our marathon conversation in good spirits. She promised to just relax for a moment and not worry about selecting a career this second but instead just open her mind to any and everything and see what sets right with her. Truth is that most undergraduates leave school with an entirely different degree from what they had intended when they entered. Furthermore, many of us end up in careers completely removed from our undergraduate area of study. I’m not at all concerned that she does not know what she will do for the rest of her life. I’m concerned that she is crushing some possibilities under her heel before they can take their first breath.
Do you have a dream you put up for sale? A year ago? Thirty years ago? I find that life continuously nudges us towards those places that are right for us.
I never ended up becoming a psychologist; I’m a college professor and administrator as well as a writer and business owner. But in many ways I do what I think I wanted to do as a psychologist—understand why we do the things we do and make meaning out of life. My work is in the area of cultural and literary studies. I look at our cultural artifacts—the films, books, songs, TV commercials we produce—and explain what these seem to reflect about the social moment that produced them. I teach students how to do this. I also help students learn how to clearly express their ideas through writing composition, fiction, analysis—the works. I engage my love of planning and organizing in my role as an administrator. I coordinate events on my campus, develop training workshops for faculty, help run my division, and plan and organize to my heart’s content. I also engage my penchant for administration via the numerous community organizations with which I’m involved.
I am an eternal optimist, so I know some of you will roll your eyes when I say, it’s never too late for redemption—in any arena of your life. I’ll say to all of you what I said to my daughter as we ended our conversation: You just have to be brave and believe in the goodness of the world, do your best with loving intentions, and a path will light up for you out of pitch blackness. Fireflies—or peenie wallies as we say in Jamaica—will emerge out of the darkness of the countryside and light the way to your best existence.
Buy back those dreams you sold too cheaply. The peenie wallies are waiting for you.