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Forget what's available out there. Go after the job that you really want the most. David Maister
More adults than I care to remember have asked me about my future plans. Maybe they saw it as an easy way to involve a child in a conversation. Maybe they did it for sport. Maybe they were looking for suggestions for themselves. Whatever the cause, it seemed like I was never too young to know what I wanted to do when I grew up.
By the time I was four, I had decided that I wanted to be Wonder Woman. My mom invested in a hearty pair of Underoos, and I was convinced that I would be a perfect superhero. The real Wonder Woman had to retire someday. Alone in my room, I practiced warding off invisible villains and intruders with my imaginary bulletproof gold bracelets and belt of truth. I kept asking my mom to buy the kids' version of the belt and bracelets, but I must have lost interest or grown out of my Underoos by Christmas because the accessories never arrived.
After battling the forces of darkness, I decided to make a career change. By the age of five, I knew what I really wanted to be when I grew up: a doctor. I had the plastic Fisher-Price Medical Kit to prove it. I learned to use a stethoscope, thermometer, and blood pressure gauge. I made my friends say ahh and checked their temperatures before they were allowed to come over to play.
Medicine seemed destined to be my future until the summer that I spent every waking moment watching the Olympic Games. At the end of two weeks, I knew my calling: I was meant to be a gymnast. I tumbled all over the living room floor and my bed. I ran into tables and walls and over the dog at least three times. A handful of concussions later, I began rethinking my blurry future.
Fortunately, the winter games were only a few months away. I calculated the sport that would give me the best chance at winning a gold medal. After two weeks of Olympic glory, I knew I was created for the biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. The reasoning was truly elementary: If I wasn't a fast skier, I could make up for it by shooting well, and if I couldn't hit the bull's-eye, I could still outski the other racers. I was confident I could become good at one if not both of the required skills. Besides, it wasn't a particularly popular sport, so I knew the overall odds of qualifying and competing were better.
A few months after the closing ceremonies, I could still taste Olympic gold. My father surprised me with a small Browning .22 rifle for my birthday. I was thrilled and I was determined. I knew I had less than four years to become the youngest member of the Olympic biathlon team. My father set up a series of paper targets on the woodpile. Hour after hour, I shot and reloaded. Day after day, I honed my skills. I knew it was a matter of destiny-until I got tired of practicing on day four. Video games and playing in the woods with friends were more fun. I hung my little .22 rifle-along with my Olympic dreams-on the mantel.
But don't think for a second that I quit dreaming.
As I grew older, I went through countless other vocations. I wanted to study ballet until I discovered what it meant to be on pointe. I wanted to be a pianist until I learned how many hours of practice it required. I wanted to be a musician until I realized I couldn't keep a beat or sing in tune. I wanted to be an astronaut until Mom said no to two very expensive weeks at Space Camp. I wanted to be a lawyer until I learned that sometimes you have to defend the bad guys. I wanted to be a teacher until I discovered what being confined in a room with 18 six-year-olds does to me. I wanted to be a computer programmer until I realized I could never remember the code. And I wanted to be an ambassador to a third-world country until Georgetown University sent me a denied admittance slip.
YOUR CHILDHOOD DREAMS
When you were a child, what did you dream of doing or becoming when you grew up? Make a list of some of your interests below.
What attracted you to that profession?
Did you give up on the dream? Why or why not? How do you feel about your choice now?
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My parents were always willing to support my whims. My grandfather repeatedly told my mother when she was young, "You could be the first female president of the United States. Nothing is impossible." As a result, I grew up with the same mantra and was eager to believe it. In fact, my high school yearbook has dozens of autographs from fellow students that say, "Good luck in the presidential election in 2020." Whenever I go back and read them, I laugh. The year 2020 isn't as far away anymore.
I basically grew up trying to answer the question, What the heck am I going to do with my life? At the time that I needed the answer the most-during college, when you have to declare a major-I had no idea what I wanted to do. Fortunately, something greater than myself was at work. Because of a computer error, I ended up in two religion courses my first semester. I tried to resolve the issue, but by the time I finally reached the level of personnel who could correct the error, the last day to change courses had already passed. I spent a semester taking one rather forgettable religion course and another that changed my life, taught by a man I will never forget.
His name was Dr. Fred Horton. An active Episcopal priest and head of the religion department, Fred Horton surprised me by asking a simple question the first time I stepped into his office: "How are you doing?"
I offered a quick reply and hurried to discuss the coursework matter at hand. In midsentence, he stopped me and asked, "How are you really doing?"
I rambled some honest answer about struggling with the transition to college life.
"Well, if you ever want to come back to talk, let me know," he replied.
Over the next four years I accepted his invitation many times. In fact, I ended up majoring in religion, and Dr. Horton became an incredible source of encouragement and a mentor to me. What I once dubbed a scheduling mistake was used by God to help change the course of my life.
The religion major provided a brief hiatus from the impending question, but as graduation approached, What the heck are you going to do with your life? became the topic of choice for nearly everyone that my parents and I encountered. It was exhausting. Unsure of which direction to go, I sent out applications to anywhere that piqued my interest. I applied to Hebrew University in Israel, graduate school, and an internship at a small religious magazine in Florida. All the doors closed except for the internship-which turned out to be with a sister magazine to the one I had applied for-and I spent a summer sweating it out in Orlando. Afterward, I went on a weeklong mission trip that lasted more than a month and then returned for a second stint, where I discovered the hard way that I simply wasn't missions material.
I came back to the United States nearly a year after I graduated and faced the doomsday question yet again. I was living at home and working as a ski instructor, kids adventure camp counselor, and nanny. I asked myself a different question: If I could do anything with my life, assuming that time and money were no object, what would I choose to do?
The answer came almost instantly. From the deepest part of my being, I wanted to write.
Then I had to face the follow-up question: What is stopping me from doing it?
At that moment, the insecurities and fears rose to the surface. What if, like mission work, writing didn't work out? What if I couldn't get published? What if I didn't have the discipline? What if I couldn't feed myself doing it? What if I had to live with Mom and Dad forever?
As I bounced between the emotions related to every concern, I realized that my desire to write was greater than any of my fears or insecurities. I went to the library and researched publishing opportunities. I sent off clips to several Christian magazines and asked if I could write small reviews for the backs of their publications. All but one said yes. Over the next five years, I grew from writing reviews to news stories to feature stories to magazine cover stories. In 2002, Relevant Books published my first book, God Whispers: Learning to Hear His Voice.
Today, when people ask what the heck I'm going to do with my life, I have my fallback answer: I am going to write. I'm a writer. That's what I do. Yet even with what most people would consider a career, I can't help but wonder if there's something more. I can't help but revisit the basic questions I have been wrestling with since those days when I could still fit into a pair of Underoos: What am I going to do with my life? What's next? What's around the corner? What more could I be doing? What could I be doing better now?
I have asked these questions so many times that I am convinced I should have the answers by now. The problem is that just as soon as I develop an answer, something radically changes in my life or I'm introduced to something new, and I'm forced to revisit the questions again.
I know that I am not alone. I have interviewed more than one hundred people of all ages and backgrounds from around the country, and everyone I've spoken with has wrestled with this question in one form or another.
Even those who have known what they wanted to do since they
were knee-high to a grasshopper still admit to struggling and
second-guessing along the journey.
Those in their twenties and thirties are particularly vulnerable to soul-searching, but they are joined by people of all ages.
Beth, a twenty-five-year-old, says that when she enrolled in college, she realized it was time to finally answer the question, What do you want to be when you grow up? The only problem was that she didn't have an answer.
"I think I put a lot of pressure on myself feeling that my job would be my life's purpose, so I wanted it to be something I really had a passion for and would enjoy doing," she says. "I took a lot of different classes my first few years of college trying to figure it all out. I envied my roommate and others who just knew from the time they were small and were on their way to doing it. I, on the other hand, would spend much time wondering and praying about what I would do."
In college, Beth took an Introduction to Social Work class and felt that out of everything she studied, the subject matter was the closest she could come to picking a career once she graduated. "Deep down I think I knew that wasn't the best thing, but it was the best thing at the time," she says.
She graduated with a degree in social work and worked in the field for a few years. "I loved the work and the children I worked with and felt like when I went home and laid my head down at night, I had spent the day doing something worthwhile [for] society and purposeful. But I became burned out from working way too many hours in very stressful situations and realized that I could not continue the pace and demands that social work required for the rest of my life."
Beth began to wonder what else she could do with her life. "There I was again, wondering what in the world I wanted to be and do and a bit frustrated to be in that place again. I began fervently praying and seeking God's direction and knew that even though I had no idea, he had formed and made me and knew the answers I was searching for. So I prayed and waited."
In the meantime, she quit her job and moved home with her parents to rest and de-stress for a month. She continued praying and began substitute teaching to pay the bills. "[God] began to put the field of nursing on my heart," she recalls. "I looked into it, and I am now completing my first semester of nursing school. I'm starting over, wondering what in the heck I'm doing in nursing school but feeling a remarkable peace."
Beth says she has come to terms with the fact that life is too complex to figure it all out. "I wish someone had told me when I was in school the first time that it was okay if I didn't know. At that age it is kind of hard to know what you want to do with the rest of your life. I really had to go out into the world and get some life into me before I really could see and know what all is out there to be and do. I think I put way too much pressure on myself and didn't enjoy the process of not knowing and discovering what I liked and might be good at doing."
I can identify all too well with the stress and pressure Beth describes. Figuring out what to do with your life isn't easy because even after landing a job or finally earning a few years' work experience to put on the résumé, the questions about what you are going to do don't always disappear. They just keep resurfacing. Singles, newlyweds, oldlyweds, empty nesters, retirees-anyone at any age or stage in life-can wrestle with these questions and struggle to find answers. No one is immune.
That's one reason I think What the heck am I going to do with my life? is one of the greatest questions we will ever ask ourselves. Not just because it is the question that won't go away, but because it forces us to examine ourselves in a new light-who we are today and who we are called to be tomorrow. The question challenges us to look at the core of who we are as individuals, discover our talents and gifts, and come to terms with our weaknesses. When we dare to ask, we step into a realm where anything-including growth, transformation, and change-is possible. Risk, failure, and loss are all potential outcomes, but so are success, innovation, and building a legacy that lives beyond us.
What the heck am I going to do with my life? isn't a safe question, but it has the power to awaken dormant dreams and silent desires. It has the ability to both compel and propel us to fulfill our lifelong calling and purpose. And that makes it a question worth asking.
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Excerpted from What the Heck Am I Going to Do with My Life? by MARGARET FEINBERG Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Feinberg. Excerpted by permission.
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