I never knew how to answer the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up.” We seem to ask this of young children even though the likelihood of getting a coherent answer is minimal (“garbage collector,” “spy,” or “space ninja” are common responses). And growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, the available models were not very well-developed; I spent some time believing a girl could only be a nurse, a stewardess, or a Charlie’s Angel.
As a working adult and mother of two, I get a new version of this question which is, “how did you know you wanted to be a ____________.” I admit having the fortune of a highly active and fulfilling career, and I love and appreciate being a parent. But my answer to the question is somewhat of a letdown: “I didn’t know.” I was never one of those kids who had such certainty about what they wanted to do when they got older. Plans were often foisted on me, but they never really worked.
There were all kinds of things I was supposed to be and certainly things I wasn’t supposed to be. Not all of these impositions came from my family, by the way – society had a few words to say about what young, dark-eyed, dark-haired, biracial females can and can’t do. And let’s not even get into the whole not-conforming-to-stereotype gender thing. All of that is likely a different post, but the fact that I am not the typical face displayed on the postcard of success is likely why I get this question fairly often, particularly from women and pretty much anyone else who still colors outside the lines. It’s a question that really asks, “if you were able to find a place in the world, will I?”
Krumboltz developed the career theory called, “Planned Happenstance,” where career paths are established through unexpected events and experiences as opposed to a carefully directed linear plan. When I was in school, this theory was presented to us as the theory that doesn’t really work. It was probably taught this way because the theory contradicts the good ol’ American Dream, whereby with fierce determination one can achieve all goals as long as you stick to the plan, never quit, and take the heart medication necessary to keep you alive while you pour 125% of your lifeblood into reaching these goals.
It’s no surprise The American Dream never really worked for me as my dreams usually included visions of lying on the couch and watching television. This might explain why I silently questioned the dismissal of Krumboltz’ idea. Also this was the first career theory I’d heard that made sense in relation to my life, especially while taking a course in a degree program I had no idea about whether or not I actually wanted to finish. I was in graduate school, true, but partly because I wasn’t sure what else to do. I had to do something after finishing undergrad, and as I’d ended up in one of those fields that doesn’t get you very far with just a bachelor’s, graduate school was likely. I ended up in this particular degree program because 1) they accepted my application and 2) my then-fiance was also going to attend that university. But had I embraced the idea of becoming the Thing you were supposed to be after you completed the program? Not really. I wasn’t against it, I could explore it, and it definitely beat getting micromanaged at a desk job (I realize plenty of other people would’ve been fine with option #3, but I already had some glimpse that living as an office jockey would’ve resulted in me peeling my skin off flake by flake).
But as it happens, I got lucky – I found the subject intriguing and it led to a redefinition of purpose. I met some very good teachers who could show me why their career mattered to them. This particular program also challenged me in new ways, so I started learning very different kinds of skills. My interest in the arts found a way to mingle with my interest in science and there was a greater chance I could earn a living. There was still a great deal to learn but this little accident was working to my advantage.
Even though I graduated, the chicken was only half cooked so I decided to try for a doctoral degree program. At least this time I knew what to look for, but because I decided late about applying I had missed the deadlines for many programs. But luck struck again – one program still took applications, invited me for an interview, and accepted me. I guess they liked my responses to the question of where I saw myself in 5 years. I’m pretty sure I made up my answer, borrowing from something I read about a week prior to the interview about a particular specialty needing more people with doctorates to do such and such work. I wasn’t really interested in it, but “I’m just along for the ride” usually isn’t an acceptable reason to an admissions committee for getting into a program.
It is also possible the committee noticed that in spite of being a rudderless ship, I love learning. If I could’ve gotten paid for being a student, I’d have found the perfect job. So doctoral study suited me pretty well. However, doctoral work also cracked my naive veneer as I got my first taste of academia not being all that academically inclined. Feeling lonely and weird, I was the youngest in my class and many seemed to delight in reminding me of that fact. Freely generating my own ideas was exciting, but I still felt as though I was missing something. I promised myself if after a year I hadn’t found “it,” I would get out of the program and chase something else.
Something happened the semester before that year ended; it was as though a switch flipped and everything turned on. I found meaning in what I was doing and somewhere this thing called confidence crept in. A specialty revealed itself, connecting so many dots I wondered why I hadn’t seen it earlier. I liked what I was doing and I was certain I would continue in a clincially-focused career…until I took a class towards the end of my program that uprooted that illusory path. I found a whole new interest that made everything point towards academia. Thus I birthed a dissertation and applied for professor jobs, again later than I should have, and yet managing to get an offer enabling me to literally defend my dissertation and move all in the same month.
That should be the end of the story, but really it was just Part 1 of the trilogy. The twists and turns that have taken me to today create a complicated and familiar tale. Volunteering for the unknown and stumbling into unexpected situations is the norm, not the exception. I suspect Part 2 is coming to a close, but Part 3 is still a mystery. I have no idea what the title, setting, or plot will be. Happenstance has become for me, a way of life.
I never knew what I could do when I was a kid because I never knew what I could do. That’s the unself-conscious world kids live in, though. I was capable of everything and yet also capable of nothing. The people in my life said take it all and take nothing, shouting everything is right as long as you don’t do anything wrong. I had potential, and was reminded daily that squandering it would be a tragedy. But these expectations didn’t belong to me; they were prescribed by entities who insisted they knew better. Living someone else’s possibilities made others proud, but my identity scattered to the winds, floating away like burning leaves. But every time I stepped off the path, a new piece of me came into focus. When I tripped into the unknown, I discovered what was missing. A series of mishaps, stumbles, and wanderings created the rhizomatic stem that has become my “career.”
I’m an uncoordinated bumbler, adept at staggering into accidents. Pretty good way to make a living.