The relentless tick-tock from my bedside clock, as it edged towards the end of another decade, overwhelmed me with an uneasy feeling:
Had I squandered my carefree 20s and 30s in frivolous pursuit of fun, travel and adventure?
Anyone scanning my resume may be intrigued by the variety and sheer number of jobs I’ve had across several industries: journalist, teacher, tour guide, information officer, trainer, volunteer, Toastmaster. It conveys a broad set of skills and experiences; I’m flexible, adaptable and a fast learner.
Yet, a closer inspection of dates, job types and locations reveals unaccounted absences and inexplicable transitions.
You see, ever since my first job, I’ve been inflicted with the two-year itch - I’m easily bored, challenged by unethical work practices and generally averse to following a dedicated career path.
What’s wrong with me?
I’ve sporadically entertained the possibility of adopting a new career; heck, I’ve even thought about getting a sperm donor ... err, I mean, a job donor. But I may have missed the boat.
I must confess, though, that I just don’t want the responsibility of being something else at this stage of my life.
When I grow up
Have you ever woken up one morning and thought: Oh no, my biological clock is ticking – I’d better grow up and be something?
It's an expectation that's conditioned in us from an early age:
“When I grow up I want to be Superman.” - An unrealistic childhood fantasy.
“When I grow up I want to be an astronaut.” - Highly unlikely, dear.
“And when I grow up, I want to be like dad.” - Oh no, he’s in a dead end job and the pay’s not worth it.
“Yeah, when I grow up, I wanna be a famous rock star.” - That’s not a real job! You should study commerce instead.
Our hopes and dreams are brutally quashed by adults who want to steer us in the direction of a real job, career, security and status.
Seriously, though, how do you know what you want to be when you’re five or 10?
As a five-year-old, do you really understand the implications of becoming, say, a doctor or a lawyer?
Would you still follow through if you realized you’ll spend years at university, working your way up through the medical or legal fields, paying off hefty university fees?
This notion of "when I grow up I want to be…" is fundamentally flawed because:
1. It implies that the process of growing up is limited.
2. It puts unrealistic pressure on us to “be” something.
Biologically, I’m growing every minute, every day, every month and every year.
Yes, we’re all growing older, although not everyone grows up.
And is there a deadline for “being” something? Bzzzz… time’s up. Too late - you’re now 20/25/30/40/50 and you haven’t become anything.
The F word
With the overbearing pressure to be something, what happens if I don’t become what I want to be? Or worse, I don’t become anything?
Doesn’t this imply failure?
It would shatter my ideals and belief systems, as well as my self esteem: I’m no good. I never became a doctor. I’m not smart enough. I don’t know what I want to be. Loser. And so on.
So why bother wanting to be something if there’s a chance of failure? I'd better not study medicine, in case I don’t become a doctor.
However, if I focus on becoming just one thing – a doctor/lawyer/astronaut/accountant/yoga instructor - is there an exclusion clause which prevents me from changing my mind later?
What if I become a doctor (etc) but realise it’s not what I imagined it would be, or I can’t stand the sight of blood, or I’ve simply lost interest in this job/career?
Philosophical and ethical considerations
The following questions therefore warrant critical research and observation:
1. Why be only one thing?
2. Why can’t I be lots of things while I’m growing up?
3. What if I don’t want to be anything?
We're expected to grow up and be something, ie some ‘thing’ and our identity revolves around our job or career: I’m a lawyer. I’m a writer. I’m a pilot. I’m a builder.
Have you noticed it’s the first thing we ask when we meet people:
“Hi. So, what do you do?”
Err… um… nothing at the moment.
The second question we ask is directed at kids: “What do you want to do/be when you leave school?”
Of course, there are lots of young people who know exactly what they want and are passionate about it. In fact, when I was 15, I wanted to be a journalist; but then I lost my focus.
While our intention is on becoming some “thing” perhaps we should take the following alternate suggestions into consideration:
1. When I grow up, I want to be the centre of attention. Hmm, too egotistical?
2. When I grow up, I want to be happy. Too vague? Will it pay the bills?
3. When I grow up, I want to be me. Does that sound too esoteric?
4. When I grow up, I want to be all that I can be.
This leaves my options open to become anything that I want to be, without limiting myself to just one specific thing. It also provides opportunities to be different things at different stages of my life.
During my higgledy-piggledy working life, I’ve signed employment contracts which dictated working hours, rate of pay, duties and responsibilities.
Perhaps we’ve come into this life with a similar contract; so before I decide what I want to be, I’ll make sure I read the fine print first:
1. Is there a bonus fee if I do become what I want to be?
2. Are there any penalty fees if I don’t become what I want to be?
3. Are there any exit fees if I change my mind?
4. Can I refinance my options if I find a better deal to be something else?
In the meantime, frivolous fun, travel and adventure are much more exciting options than having a career.
My biological clock may have stopped ticking, but I’m still a student at the University of Life.
So, what do you want to be when you grow up?