When I Grow up; I Want to Be?
At 30 years old, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.
Our entire lives, it seems, are defined by one seemingly innocuous question: what do you do for a living? I hate it – this practice of reducing our sole purpose of being into a single-sentence response.
I was maybe five, when I first decided what to be when I grew up. I had one of those lift-out wooden puzzles for kids, each component comprising the characters in a colourful circus scene. One of the pieces was a purple-clad woman in a feather headdress balanced atop a snowy white mare. Not only did I love her, I wanted to be her, and so it was that my first official career choice was that of circus rider. What a relief our preliminary career choices often fail to manifest, as my later lacking athleticism and loss of interest in ponies would surely have compromised my aspirations.
I don’t recall thinking again in too much detail about my future career until partway through high school, when we were suddenly informed of the direness of mapping our lives before our four years were up. To this day I resent the foisting of such weighty decisions on the fractured identities of teenagers, who can’t yet vote or buy liquor but are expected to grasp the magnitude of the job market. Certain exceptions apply, of course – the futures of some are fated for triumph from the get-go, as was the genius kid in physics who barely batted an eye over even the most complex problem, or the artist ingénue whose creations sold for figures that far exceeded the sum of all the tips I ever earned in my five years of waitressing.
I, however, was an indecisive chooser-of-careers. Social work, marine biology, graphic design, psychology, laboratory science – no matter what I settled on, I continued to be bombarded with the opinions of everyone around me. My sixteen year-old mind was suffering. Social work didn’t mesh with my introverted meekness, while marine biologist and laboratory technician were inherently doomed on account of my failure at math. Psychology was vetoed somewhere down the line after absorbing the message that the earnings were paltry (by whose standards, I ask now), and don’t even get me started on graphic design (“your choices are limited”, said the pre-Internet generation of the 90s).
The Arts Are A Bust
The one thing I naturally excelled at during my youth was the humanities, the message I received loud and clear from parents, family, teachers, guidance counselors and friends was that there’s no future success in studying the arts. The nearer I came to finishing school, the more I struggled with this belief – forcing myself to a calculus class I couldn’t keep up with, and a chemistry class I ultimately flunked. All this inevitably led to a bit of a crisis upon graduation – here I was, expected to start my college career, and all my grades but English were a veritable disaster. After some serious fast talking, however, I was able to convince my parents to let me sponge off them another year, and I returned to high school (which is as awkward as it sounds) to upgrade the humanities I’d sorely neglected my senior year (I also enrolled for a couple first-year courses at the community college to help balance my embarrassment at returning to high school after graduation).
If only I could report that my goals became clear once I left for university! Alas, the same indecision shadowed me there, and it wasn’t until I was forced to choose a Major (English, with a minor in Media Studies) that I’d essentially narrowed my options to the language-based choices so denounced during high school. If anyone asked, I vaguely explained the potential for journalism or public relations, though both occupations belied the uncertainty within. Still, when I completed my undergrad with honours in 2006, my degree was evidence of my promising future, and I walked smugly into the offices of the local papers, naively presuming my shiny new certificate made me a prime candidate for a well-paying gig-of-choice.
Here’s what actually happened: after months of job searching, and the desperate feeling that all my degree signified was an ass-ton of debt, I finally took a job at the mall, resigned to the fact I’d be spending the rest of my life paying back student loans. Eventually, I was hired as an office receptionist for a marginally higher-paying wage, leading to a series of marginally higher-paying office jobs, which, four years after finishing my undergrad, led to my current decent-paying desk job – one at least mildly related to my schooling (moreso if I talk it up, less if I’m feeling tired and morose).
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, having arrived at my current position, there’s anything I would’ve done differently. Regardless of how my path unfolded, the one thing that remained constant was the expectation that I would figure out what I do for a living. But even now, with a dependable job and a growing pension and the ability to comfortably pay my mortgage and bills, take an allotted four weeks of holidays in exchange for the 48 I work, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. And what I want is for that to be okay. To release the belief that our identities are defined by what type of work we do. I want to dream up schemes of returning to school, or travelling abroad with my husband, or building a home-based business, and to trust in all the possibilities.
So that when people ask me what I do for a living, I can say, “Where do I start?”
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