There are few things more stressful for a 20-something than making it out of college and into the Real World, only to realize the career you’ve been pursuing isn’t for you. After all, we spend 4 years prepping for what we think we want to do for the rest of our lives – we chose majors and take classes, we get internships or part-time jobs; we metaphorically handcuff ourselves to our ambitions and once we graduate, we throw away the key. We feel locked in.
As someone who recently did some soul-searching and concluded I’d been on the “wrong path” for the last few years (the path leading toward law school, in my case), I can attest to the extreme levels of anxiety and resentment this kind of discovery promotes. It makes you fantasize about a do-over, makes you long for a trip back to the past when you were a kid and could be anything you wanted to be. In elementary school, you can have a new aspiration every week and never worry about it, a luxury I took full advantage of when I was young.
Upon receiving my first plastic stethoscope, I knew I wanted to be a doctor. After an accidental viewing of one of those excruciatingly gory surgeries on the Discovery channel, I tossed that aside and announced I wanted to be a scientist. When my parents informed me that most scientists don’t actually work in secret laboratories hidden behind bookshelves in their room (thanks for the unrealistic expectations, Dexter!), I shook it off. I’d be an astronaut instead. I believe it was this yearning for the capriciousness of childhood that prompted me to toss maturity aside and call my mom to whine very dramatically about the misfortune of my now-uncertain career path.
“Mom, help! I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, and newsflash: I’M GROWN UP!”
“Well,” she said, jokingly. “You could always go be a rainforest-dwelling assassin.”
“Huh?” I had no idea what she meant and was starting to worry about finding a suitable old person’s home for my mother on top of finding a new job, when the childhood memory suddenly flooded back and I immediately started laughing. She was right; I did want to be an assassin when I was little! I better explain:
When I was in 4th grade, we did a unit on the rainforest and endangered species. I chose to do my report on the Sumatran Tiger and ended up becoming pretty attached to the animal. So attached, that when we watched a documentary about poaching, I bawled in the middle of class. It was embarrassing, but what can I say? Seeing the footage of dead animals hanging upside down, ready to be skinned, really struck a nerve. So, that day when my mom picked me up after school, I told her I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: an assassin.
“Oh dear,” she said. “Do you even know what an assassin is, sweetheart?”
“Yes, it’s someone who kills people.” (I’d recently learned the word from an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess.)
I can only imagine what must have been going through my mother’s head after her 9-year-old made this declaration. Raising an aspiring-killer has to be deemed failure as a parent in some regard. I could tell she was concerned, so I provided more details:
“Don’t worry Mom, I’m only going to kill poachers! They hunt defenseless animals, so I’m going to hunt them first! I’ll live in a tree house in the rainforest, and when I see them down below, I’ll shoot them before they can shoot any animals! I’m going to be their protector! And, nobody will ever know I killed them, because I’ll feed them to the tigers afterward!”
My mother, bless her heart, tried to explain that if I wanted to help animals, there were other things I could do besides shooting poachers. She mentioned charities, government positions, and something called international organizations, things I could allegedly join in order to protect the environment without murdering anyone. I nodded my head, pretending to listen, but my mind was made up. I’d already spent 2 hours after lunch making this elaborate life plan; decided what weapons I would use and what my camouflaged outfit would look like. As far as I was concerned, the matter was settled.
I’m not sure what eventually convinced me that “Poacher Assassin” wasn’t the most feasible career choice. Perhaps it was after my mother pointed out that living in the rainforest meant going without cable television? Regardless, I was so happy she brought this memory back into the present during our conversation last week. For one, this recollection reminds me that I have been convinced of a specific career path before, planned it all out and resolved to ignore any proposed alternatives. I see how childish that was of me then (as I was, in fact, a child), and I see how childish it is of me now to suppose that just because I made a career decision at 18 years old, I can’t change and improve upon it now.
More importantly, however, I’m reminded of the kind of passion we have when we’re kids. Nobody thought to pick their profession based on how long the commute was or what kind of health insurance they’d get. We chose jobs because we thought they were important and interesting and that we’d be great at them. We aspired to change the world! I don’t know what happens to us between the ages of 10 and 20, but I can’t help but feel something beats the creativity and passion out of us and we resolve to put our dreams aside in favor of something we’re told will be “more practical” – and this needs to change.
When faced with the daunting prospect of retracing a career path, I think the only thing that will keep us from breaking down and crying in public is pursuing something we love with the unrelenting enthusiasm of a child. It’s like Confucius said: choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. And if Confucius turns out to be wrong, I guess I can still pack up my bow and arrow and go protect those tigers.