Thanks to nearly ten years of offering this unsolicited advice, I’ve put myself in position to briefly mentor younger people–many of them still in high school–so I thought I’d address this audience directly today. Those of you who are older and already working will have to wait your turn.
You Might Not Know What You Want to Do When You Grow Up
I know adult friends who still don’t know how to answer this. You might shift from job to job, never quite certain if this is what you were “meant to do.” Yes, some of your peers might have known what they wanted to be since they were five years old (I wanted to be a writer, for example), but some of them burn out early because they found out they didn’t enjoy what they thought they were meant to do. A lot of people are just making up their plans as they go along. That’s okay, really. You are not required to know exactly what you should do with yourself. That said, your life and career can be a lot more satisfying if you can find something that lights up your soul and (the fates willing) also pays the bills, so pay attention when you find that activity or work.
Through my niece, nephew, and other young people, I’ve learned about the incredible pressures parents, teachers, and other well-meaning adults put on adolescents to pick a major and get ready for college. Facing similar pressures in my junior year of high school, I first chose “business” to please one parent. Later I chose a psychology major in a fit of pique, to figure out why the people around me were being so pushy and why I was getting so annoyed.
In truth, at that age, if I’d said what I really wanted to do with my life, at least one of my parents would have shaken their heads and likely put up roadblocks to ensure that I did not pursue that dream. Go ahead and laugh, but I wanted to be like George Lucas. I even sent my ACT scores to University of Southern California, where Lucas went to film school. Needless to say, I didn’t go to USC and I am not making movies. Instead, I reshuffled my priorities (where am I comfortable? what can I afford?), and ended up at Northern Illinois University (NIU), where I chose a major in English because I wanted to write the Great American Science Fiction Novel. I still haven’t published that novel.
I was 30 when I started my master’s degree in technical writing. I’m going back to school at 51 to pursue more schooling to immerse myself in my favorite topic, space. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that educational experience, but something will occur to me.
You Might Know More About Certain Things Than Other People
As a teenager and young adult, I knew about a few topics: airplanes, history, and English grammar. Sometimes I bored people sharing what I knew. Sometimes I was so confident about what I knew that I irritated or offended people who didn’t know what I knew or who knew a lot more than I did. In short, I was a pain because I knew a lot about X, insisted on sharing it, and treated other people who didn’t know as much as if they were stupid. The point here is that pontificating about whatever you’re passionate about will not win you friends or allies. Other people will start to notice or care when your specialized knowledge or skills can be useful to them. This is how jobs are created.
You Might Be Tempted to Seek a Permanent Solution to a Temporary Problem
You will screw up. You will hurt someone or yourself and potentially endanger some great future you envisioned for yourself. You might do both in the same week (I’ve done this a few times, once when I was 40). Your emotional state will be such that you lose your sense of humor about your weaknesses, cannot see a way to fix whatever you screwed up, and feel there is no point in going on. That’s the point where you need to stop, listen to what you’re saying to yourself, and think more practically about the situation.
Have you screwed up X relationship? Most likely, yes. Is the damage permanent? Possibly. You can take steps to find out and work things out or absorb the painful lesson you learned and move on. There are over 7 billion people on this planet. You can find someone else and try again, this time a little wiser.
Did you screw up a potential professional opportunity? Maybe so. It might have been your “dream job” or “the chance of a lifetime,” or what have you. That will not be the only opportunity in your life. If you were bright, talented, and alert enough to put yourself in the path of that opportunity, you will be able to find another.
Did you screw up a relationship and a professional opportunity in the same week? Take a breath. Reread the preceding two paragraphs. Consider your options. If you consider ending your existence one of them, stop, and talk with someone: a friend, a family member, a professional counselor, or the suicide hotline. (However, I don’t suggest calling me, I hasten to add–I am not a professional counselor.) Yes, you’ve screwed up, perhaps on more than one front. Yes, your emotions suck. Yes, this might be the worst you’ve ever felt in your life. Yes, you might have to make some serious adjustments to accommodate what you screwed up. No, that’s not a good reason to end your life. If you do that, you miss out on all the future opportunities that still exist. The more you do, the more opportunities you can find, but you have to be around to experience them. Seek your living options.
Here endeth the lecture. Go forth and conquer.