By Amy Nielsen
I am a woman in my mid-forties. I am raising two young girls who are of the age to start to explore what they want to be when they grow up. I also have a stepson who is starting the journey of choosing a college, or not, for his chosen career path. It is an interesting time to be a parent for sure.
If you asked me what I wanted to do for a career when I was a kid, I can say I would have not been able to answer. I had no idea. To some degree, I still don’t. Because, what I am good at isn’t really career or field specific.
As a child growing up in the seventies and eighties, I was told that I could be anything I wanted to be. Any career was open to me. What I came to understand was that it wasn’t so much the perceived sex of the job it was the color of the collar that made a difference in what was an acceptable career choice or not. Looking back now, I can see that I was never really asked what I wanted to do because it didn’t matter to the adults in my environment. More important was that I wasn’t limited in any way at all. Certainly not at this tender age that my girls are at when I see how much difference the choice of direction, any direction, opens up paths.
I came to understand that I could do anything. Every door was open to me. Which was paralyzing to me. I was somehow supposed to be able to know all that was out there and all the possibilities. And then be able to choose one without any interference from outward sources. I was being taught to be self-sufficient and resourceful. I knew what I wanted some parts of my life to look like, but I had no idea what careers out there might help me on my path to be the most successful me I could be.
I come from a home of some privilege, more than some, less than others. My family traveled a lot, through Canada, Europe, India and China. I spent most summers abroad. I lived in Switzerland for a time. I have lived, worked in, or traveled by car or truck through every state in the U.S. except South Dakota and Alaska. I went to public grade school, catholic middle school and a private, girls only boarding high school. I hold a bachelor’s degree from a large land grant university where I studied mostly at the local, private, Ivy League colleges through consortium study programs. I also hold an associates certificate, and several certifications. I have seen a lot of different ways to be, a lot of different careers. What I love to do has nothing to do with any of my studies. What I am good at is used in every career.
Throughout my entire schooling career, I was told I could do anything, be anything; what I wasn’t told was how to get there. I was taught was that girls can do anything boys can do, and that women can do anything men can do. We are just as smart. Just as strong. Just as intelligent. We are capable and able to succeed at anything we choose to do.
“So what do you want to be when you grow up?” isn’t really the question to ask. The question should be, “What lifestyle do you want to follow? What problems are you good at solving? What do you have a natural aptitude for? How do you exist in the world? What room in your house do you spend the most time in, doing what?”
While I was out busy seeing all of the wonders of the world, I was filling my head with all sorts of interesting places I wanted to go back to. I saw people doing all sorts of neat things. I still had no idea what I liked to do, what made me tick, and what I was good at doing. I didn’t know how my piece fit into the world.
I have been struggling most of my adult life with figuring out not only what I want to be when I grow up but what that life looks like, exactly. I have had several somewhat related careers in my life. If I had had conversations specific to my adult life when I was in the formation stages of my younger years I feel I would have been better settled and less searching in my careers. I might have seen a straighter path.
Until recently I didn’t know what it was that tied all of those fields together and why it was that I was good at them. Turns out it wasn’t the fields, it was how I work within an organization that I excel at. It’s something I have been good at for a long time. Something I have been using for decades. Until it was pointed out to me by a recent mentor friend, I would not have put the pieces together. I don’t know who would have initiated those conversations with me when I was a kid, but I know that I will begin to figure out how to have them with my girls starting now.
It is a difficult thing to tease out the essence of a being and find how they move in the world. It is easier seen when kids are younger, when their natures are so much closer to the surface. But it means being observant and leaning in close to hear the whole story. It’s one thing to ask a kid what they want to be when they grow up, it’s another to help them find their calling.
As a parent it means searching deeper within myself to find out what questions I ask myself, then simply ask my girls and listening to their answers without judgement. My older daughter wants to be an astrophysicist, but not an astronaut. There is a big difference and it is as fundamental in her as wanting to touch the stars and lead teams to great discoveries, but not let her feet leave this precious earth of ours. By hearing her now I can help her set her dreams for the future. By asking her to be specific she can start to explore her strengths as a leader and as a researcher even if her eventual field of career is underwater basket weaving. If I just told her she can do anything, she would have no direction to reach for, no specific reason to hone her leadership skills.
So while it is good to be told you are terrific and that you can do anything you want to do, without direction, passions and talents can become buried and sidelined. A better question might be, what do you really do all day? How are you all day? Where are you all day? Where are your thoughts all day in your quiet times? Then find talents and passions to support those talents and that allow those natures to shine.