Hi everyone, today I want to discuss mental health in the context of education and career planning. I put up a post the other day: A short cautionary tale. I want to expand upon it because I think it’s quite a significant subject.
Selecting the job/career/profession that we plan to pursue is a weighty decision. It’s no wonder really that we can become anxious, stressed, pressured and overwhelmed. Who wouldn’t be? The worst part I think is that we’re expected to make such a life-determining decision at a point in our lives when many things are already up in the air and uncertain. In our late teens and early adult years we’re discovering who we are and what we’re capable of without the same level of dependence of which we’ve become accustomed. It can be a rocky time because we’re forming and coming to understand what makes us tick and this isn’t an easy thing to do. On top of the self-discovery, exploration and falling down and scraping our knees before learning how to get up again, we’re constantly asked what we want to be. I understand that this is an important question, but I question the emphasis placed on it. Why are we so often asked what we want to be and nearly never asked who we want to be? Which comes first? How do we decide on what we want to be if we don’t know who we are and want to be? Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? It seems hard to move forward that way in my view anyway.
My post was short so I’ll explain it in a little greater detail to illustrate my point. When I was pretty young I enjoyed life very much. I probably knew myself better then than I did in these past five years. I knew that I was creative, imaginative and artistically inclined. I wanted to pursue something that would keep true to that calling. My parents always encouraged me to be myself but as I grew older and became more imbedded in society and the educational system my original values became tainted. I’m not blaming the system directly, simply sharing my personal experience.
The pressure commenced and grew exponentially. When I encountered adults the primary questions where: How old are you and what do you want to be when you grow up. I kind of wanted to scream “I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING GIVE ME TIME!” I didn’t though…and instead internalized the notion that I needed to make a quick choice. Then came the financial considerations; STEM fields were praised (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), while social science was portrayed as a choice for those who were undecided. God forbid we’d decide on an artistic career, studying history, communication, anthropology or the like. (All things I was drawn to, coincidently.) I started to notice an attitude and divide between those pursuing science and those pursuing social science. There was a sort of snobbery in the sense that social science was looked down upon.
With the emphasis placed on science and math I made sure to be in the high-level math courses to ensure that I had the prerequisites to be accepted in the Science program in college. Math is basically the opposite of my talents and so I didn’t do very well. I take everything to heart so this was a personal failure to me and lowered my confidence. (It didn’t help that my teacher made me feel stupid, acted quite condescendingly and didn’t care when I was brought to tears.) Around the same time I decided that business might just be a decent compromise between STEM fields and my actual interests. Feeling unwell and yet driven by a need to conform and pursue a future I didn’t even know I wanted, I worked hard towards an unclear goal. This burned me out further and though I ran out of gas my fear of stopping was too great to do the responsible thing and press a pause button. When asked what I wanted to do and replied “business/finance”, I received approval. This led me to believe that I had made the right choice.
Early on in college I was desperately trying to find a career choice that wouldn’t kill my soul. I was considering business as I mentioned but I was becoming very interested in anthropology as I was taking a course on it at the time. It was one of the few classes I actually enjoyed and I thought I might be happier. One time I was asked by a friend of a friend (an adult) what I was considering career-wise and voiced this possibility instead of business or the paralyzing insecurity I felt. The response? “Good luck with that, you might want to think of something else if you want to make money.” SERIOUSLY? I was already very confused, depressed, anxious, overwhelmed…you name it. My 17 year old self was further discouraged. I also wondered how any of this could be fair. It made me angry at the ‘system’ to be honest. I have to pick something I’m going to do for the rest of my life until I retire and if I pick something that I might actually enjoy I won’t make enough money to support myself / a family? Instead I’ll have to sacrifice my happiness by choosing something lucrative that could lead me into a dead end desk job that makes me want to jump off a bridge?
Extreme? Maybe…but bear in mind that I was severely depressed. What is the moral of this story? My reaction might’ve been extreme but I don’t think I was far off the mark. How many people are out there unhappy with their employment but caught in it because they made a choice in school and are fairly bound to it? Of course we’re told that we can change our minds and/or go back to school but I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that most of us are/would be terrified by that risk. Our time is finite and the thought of making the wrong choice and losing time can be paralyzing.
After recounting this story I wish I had some epiphany to share with you that resolves this confusion for us. Sadly I do not. I do however have new thoughts on the subject and have changed my mindset since those darker times. I can still become incredibly anxious on this subject but there are some things I remind myself of to keep me on track. I don’t want to be naive and fail to realize that to support oneself in life often means sacrifices and compromises. I understand that, I do. But I’ve also come to believe that there has to be a way to blend passion, desire, interest and enthusiasm into one’s career choice. Otherwise what’s the point? I’d rather be less financially secure but happy and able to get up in the morning than to be well-off but disinterested, robotic and unhappy. Maybe I seem naive again but I’m quite serious. My goal is to find my passion FIRST and THEN find a way to monetize it. The other way around seems like a recipe for sadness and regret.
I’ve learned a lot through the pain I’ve been through and one of those things is that I knew more about who and what I wanted to be when I was FIVE years old than I did from 12 to 21! What does that say? Probably a lot of things but I’ll let you take your pick. To me it means that it’s easy to stray off course in a society that praises money and material items over health and happiness. I’ve concluded that the system is too vast and ingrained in the collective consciousness to be changed any time soon which means the responsibility falls on us as individuals to make a decision that will bring us what WE desire. Does that relieve the immense pressure on our shoulders? Probably not. But perhaps there is a freedom in the knowledge that we can take control of our future. By being aware of the external pressures we face maybe we can turn the gaze inwards instead and focus on examining ourselves for personal truths. More and more I’m discovering that looking outwards for happiness is perhaps not the answer.
Key Points for the Bottom Line
- Don’t be afraid to pause and think; such a weighty decision is dangerous to rush.
- Explore while you’re young. Seek out opportunities that open your mind.
- Give yourself permission to mess up once in while; We’re not perfect and expecting that from ourselves can lead to unhappiness and the sense of personal failure when everything is an opportunity for growth.
- Ask YOURSELF what you want instead of seeking validation and approval from society, parents, teachers, peers, strangers, etc. It’s YOUR life, not theirs.
- Those dreams you have that people tell you are unrealistic? Don’t give up on them. Even if you don’t end up exactly where you planned you will probably have learned a lot in the process by exploring the new avenue.
- Be proactive. This means research, talking to people, using summers to try out potential options, etc.
- Diversify your course-load: Instead of putting all your eggs in one basket, use all the options available in college to experiment with courses outside of your original field of study.
- Do some soul-searching; work from the inside out instead of the outside in.
- While planning for the future is extremely important, focussing on the now is just as if not even more important! The future after all is built on the past, and the past, is NOW.
With all this in mind it might be helpful for me to finish off my personal story by explaining my future plans. I went a great distance out of my way to come back full circle to creativity which is where my writing comes in. Through my volunteering experience I also discovered that I’m very passionate about helping people and given my experiences, it would make sense that I could become a psychologist. This is an excellent example of working from the inside out. I discovered my passion for helping one-on-one, I combined that with my area of experience and only then did I find a match.
At the same time I’ve been eager to follow my passions earlier than only when I obtain my doctorate. That’s why even though I didn’t have much faith in myself I started this blog to see what I can do in terms of contributing to society. It may not be an enormous help but everything and everyone starts somewhere. At the same time I’m integrating my artistic passion by relating it to the subject of mental health. To me it feels like once you start to find the right pieces it becomes easier to put together a puzzle that will lead you in the right direction.
This brings me to current times where I had an interview yesterday at a pet store that I really really want to work at. Everyone is kind, helpful and passionate about animals and helping their humans care for them as well as possible. I’m so sure of my desire to work there that it’s the only place I applied! Once again I’m trying to practice what I preach my making even my student job something that I truly care about. After all, it’s difficult to be good at something when you have no interest or desire to do it.
I hope this article was more illuminating and encouraging than overwhelming; I certainly don’t want to add more pressure!
Take care everyone…I’m sending positive and happy vibes!