When we ask someone, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, we’re not asking for a range of ideas. We want to know as specifically as possible. We want to know the bullseye they’re aiming for.
I see in the eyes and hearts of many students the results of this bullseye thinking. They imagine a straight-line path from what they are doing today to what they will eventually earn a living doing.
But we all know it’s not like that. The number of people I know who are doing now what they said they would do in high school is vanishingly small; and even those who are in their predicted career followed a circuitous path to get there. (It’s a little like high school sweethearts: the number of couples who survive from high school is minuscule, and even those who do have a more complicated story.)
What I wish for students is twofold. First, have a bigger target. When you ask yourself what you want to do in life, don’t say, “college professor of voice”, say “something in vocal music.” Say, “something in music.” Don’t say “Federal Appeals Court Judge”, say “judge” or “lawyer.” A less specific target makes for a less interesting story, but it’s more honest and less stressful.
Second, have faith that committing yourself to the process of education will lead to a happy result on the other end, even if you don’t know what the result is going to be. Being OK with this level of uncertainty is challenging, and our schools are certainly doing nothing to prepare you (we are systematically training students to measure and value certainty…).
If you insist on aiming towards a bullseye, go ahead, but do so with the understanding that you might end up somewhere else entirely by the end of your shot. Wanting to be a college professor or an appeals court judge is great–but if your life leads in a different direction, you shouldn’t be disappointed; this is the way things go.
In my life, I hit the bullseye of a target I didn’t know existed; and that’s the case for a massive number of successful people I know. I did it by working hard, trusting the mentors who were guiding me, and having faith that the process would prepare me for whatever I ended up doing.