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what I wanted to be when I grew up

for my birthday, daphnep asked what did you want to be when you grew up, when you were small? Any silly early wishes? And how old were you when you started figuring out where you really wanted to go?

So going back... when I was very tiny I was in dance class and piano lessons I remember asking my mom if I could be both a professional ballerina and pianist, she said of course dear. She didn't mention that I was really bad at dance class. Years later, I saw videos. No idea where they're at now, but I was not one of the kids who'd ever get to be in the front row. I haven't gotten my own kids into any lessons like I was in. They did some YMCA sports, one month here or there, but nothing serious. I wonder if I did them a disservice.

When I was a pre-teen, I was definitely going to be an architect. Maybe blame lego for this? or the world... but I was convinced I'd found my calling. I'd build tiny houses out of everything. Toothpicks, paper, mud, household items. I loved quadrille paper. I'd draw floorplans and kept them in a folder. I loved thinking about houses, where doors could go, how they'd swing out or in, I loved big center spaces for gathering, or I'd add a stage or something random. So many houses. Architecture sounded like a real job and I could get serious about it.

In late middle-school, early high school, I was going to be a Christian Minister. I felt called. I was going to help people find meaning in their lives. I was leading the Christian club at school, I'd write essays and manifestos and songs about how we can all rest assured that we are loved by God. My youth group mission trips would bring me to tears, thinking about how much work there was to be done in the world to help people. I thought very deep thoughts.

Late in high school, I started getting more economically motivated, and suddenly both jobs seemed to have a supply and demand imbalance. I started looking around. Rather than telling the world what it needed, I wondered if I should listen to it. There weren't articles about how bad the world needed ministers. Architecture was competitive. Physics, my favorite class, was competitive. I got a 30 on my ACT but that wasn't exactly MIT material. I felt average, I felt that intensely, and wanted to find something that was more of a sure thing.

In high school, our essays and assignments grew more and more research based, and I started learning that some disciplines force you to look at the past and back up your assertions with what everyone else has said, especially if you're not an established, proven expert.

So I let the colleges pull me. We'd visited lots, and I agreed to go to the one with the best scholarships, it made perfect sense to me. In the world of engineering and consumer electronics, little people could come up with new ideas without having to prove that they stood on other shoulders. That was what I wanted - some kind of something technical. Then I got another scholarship to choose electrical and the rest was history.

I guess my big question is... why don't other people think this way? We keep watching this show Master Chef on TV. It's fun watching Anne Burrell work with restaurant owners to pick their next executive chef. The people applying for the job always confuse me though. They always say that being a chef is their dream, their passion, but it's so stressful, and so far it only pays $12 an hour... HOLD UP! Why would you pursue something with that huge of a cost/benefit imbalance? Isn't there some kind of food industry related job that will actually pay for you to eat and afford your student loans at the same time? Did you not KNOW, ahead of time, what a terrible deal this was, how over flooded the industry is with chefs? Did your culinary school tell you that everybody does just fine after graduation?

I know it's easy for me to say now that I'm 18 years into a career... I know nothing is guaranteed. When I graduated in the awful post-9/11 economy there were several months of job interviews where I worried that I could not be an engineer after all. I do tell young people that if they're passionate, they can make it in something related to almost any field. But I'm still glad I picked a field with slightly better odds.

In high school I started seeing so many people, but especially women, who were unsure of what they wanted to do. So I said if you're not sure, why not pick a job that will pay well? That was a strange thing to say. Most of them shrugged and picked something that would never pay off. Why? And why was it always women who shrugged and picked the lower paying fields, while men shrugged and picked the higher paying ones? Something was sketchy as hell, there. I was only 16 but I was feminist enough to want to kick that trend over. I still haven't figured out the others.


( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 11th, 2021 02:24 pm (UTC)
People don't hear the part about low odds of job success in fields they really want to be in. They want to do the thing that badly.
Jul. 11th, 2021 02:31 pm (UTC)
I think you're underestimating the many, many ways race, gender, class, and familial expectations shape and constrain people's choices and how those constraints start as early as kindergarten.
Jul. 11th, 2021 07:22 pm (UTC)
oh I know a little bit, that's why I FIGHT THE HELL OUT OF THEM and try to get girls into engineering. but it's a battle.

I mean we should be fighting all these race, gender, class, familial expectations right? teaching kids to ask a lot of questions and challenge assumptions?
Jul. 11th, 2021 07:35 pm (UTC)
I think you're not understanding my point, which is fine. Do as you please but don't make blanket statements about what others should be doing or judge them for picking a low-paying career. After all, if there weren't people willing to work in low paying careers in the current system, there would literally be no public school teachers in most of the US.
Jul. 12th, 2021 02:42 am (UTC)
I think we should pay teachers more! In fact I hear about these teacher shortages and think that's EXACTLY what society needs, a slap in the face to remind us that we aren't paying teachers enough and teachers are starting to opt out, and it should (in theory) start moving salaries and benefits up, right? I want to celebrate teachers but when I hear them say they're underpaid, I want to DO SOMETHING, call somebody, vote in an elected official who speaks to funding the schools! not just thank them for their noble self-sacrifice and walk away.
Jul. 12th, 2021 11:12 pm (UTC)
But, in the mean time, what do you want the current teachers to do? What do you want the aspiring teachers to do? From your post, it sounds like you'd tell them to go into another profession where they'd make more money but, if they do, then there will be no one left to teach while you're trying to get elected officials to fund schools better. And, while you're at it, I hope you're trying to get them to do so in a way that doesn't further the gaps between whiter, wealthier schools and all the rest.

Your post oversimplifies the issues greatly and speaks to the privileges you and those around you enjoy. Not everyone is driven by finances. Not everyone has the opportunities you had available to you. From what you've written, it sounds like you're judging them for following their dreams if their dreams aren't as profitable as yours.

ETA: You also seem to be assuming that college major --> career path and that if you pick the wrong major, you're doomed. That perspective basically writes off the entirety of liberal arts degrees and education (which, to be fair, is common from those with STEM degrees so it's something I've seen a lot). What's wrong with studying Spanish in college if it's something you want to learn? Is it useless if the college counselors can't directly tell you how much money you'll make with a Spanish degree or if Spanish majors take longer to pay off their debt than economics majors? Is studying Spanish to help indigent immigrants less valuable than studying economics and working on Wall Street? It's less profitable and so if cost:debt is your measure, then Wall Street will always win out.

Edited at 2021-07-12 11:16 pm (UTC)
Jul. 11th, 2021 04:10 pm (UTC)
It’s good that you are doing well for yourself and have no economic worries. Other people WANT to do well in life too by working hard in things they are skilled at, or their art, or you know, sometimes it’s just the work they can get. Most people do not have college tours and scholarships to lead them to the upper economic classes.
Jul. 11th, 2021 05:37 pm (UTC)
Jul. 11th, 2021 07:31 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't say I have no economic worries.

what if someone DOES have the college tours, scholarships, and wealthier upbringing than me, but they still don't ask the questions about career placement that they should ask before choosing a major? then can I show them this entry?
Jul. 11th, 2021 08:24 pm (UTC)

But look, I’m a socialist, and I know most people are working as hard as they can. I have accepted food from food banks in the past. I may never own a house, no matter what I do. I’m well-educated, I work hard. I struggle to pay for childcare while working, and I’m grateful, for example, for the people working for a low wage to care for children, maybe just for a year or two or more. It just feels classist to talk about how more people need to make better career choices, and I don’t know that it’s helpful to the whole ecosphere, by which I mean not just your economic rung, but everyone. My perspective is different from yours, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong. Sharing ideas is good. I hope your children can follow your path, if that is what they want to do.

Edited at 2021-07-11 08:24 pm (UTC)
Jul. 12th, 2021 02:38 am (UTC)
I will totally encourage my children to follow any path they wish. But I would like them to ask those college councilors about placement rates and income vs. student debt ratios, to make an informed decision. I think it's a topic that should be considered when a choice is available. Not everyone even gets a choice, I acknowledge that.
Jul. 11th, 2021 04:39 pm (UTC)
When I was a pre-teen, I was definitely going to be an architect. Maybe blame lego for this? or the world... but I was convinced I'd found my calling. I'd build tiny houses out of everything. Toothpicks, paper, mud, household items. I loved quadrille paper. I'd draw floorplans and kept them in a folder. I loved thinking about houses, where doors could go, how they'd swing out or in, I loved big center spaces for gathering, or I'd add a stage or something random. So many houses. Architecture sounded like a real job and I could get serious about it.

I also wanted to be an architect as a kid, made Lego creations and drew floor plans. My high-school guidance counselor scared me out of it because I struggled in math. Ironically, I had no real problems with geometry, which seems to be the most important, and I imagine nowadays that everything is automated enough that such shortcomings could be mitigated. I am still convinced she did me a real disservice because I have never connected with another field about which I felt so strongly. FWIW, I have several friends who do it and it's apparently pretty cut-throat.
Jul. 12th, 2021 02:18 am (UTC)

Freaking councilors!

I’ve heard that school administrators in general bend towards the arts, not sciences, and it makes them a bit out of touch from what the STEM world really needs.

Then again I think colleges over emphasize advanced math when we need more hands on projects, and employers over emphasize engineering degrees when they could hire from vocational schools… ahhh! But that’s a whole other entry.

Jul. 11th, 2021 05:23 pm (UTC)

I love this! Thank you for handling this question so fully!

It reminds me of the tv show Mad Men, when Betty tells Sally “not every little girl gets to be what she wants when she grows up: the world can’t handle that many ballerinas!”
One of my favorite tv lines.

I see this cultural phenomenon all the time, because in the last 15 years or so universities decided they could make a fortune by selling degrees in “museum studies.” They (and of course the students) didn’t make a practice of checking in with any museums on that, I guess it was a nice way for some people who wanted to work in museums but couldn’t to be able to at least teach in the subject, of a fashion. The truth is, nobody working in museums ever needed or had a degree in “museum studies” so nobody knows what to do with the new graduates showing up with that as their credential. It’s not good for anything. Curators have advanced degrees in subjects like art and history and science and horticulture (depending on the type of museum), museum educators have degrees in education, financial departments are full of people with finance degrees and MBAs, Museum IT departments with computer science degrees, and typically nobody employed in the building went to school for “museum studies” and none of the hiring managers respect that as a credential. So we get all these museum studies majors who get jobs as visitor services associates as “a foot in the door” at an hourly part-time wage, and then get really grumpy and sour about working in the coat check…and who are simply not qualified for any of the actual jobs that come open. And I want to say to them “did you ever stop to look at the stats for the graduates of that program, before you signed up for it???” It’s such a scam.

Jul. 12th, 2021 02:20 am (UTC)

Yes! Engineering schools try to attract kids with weird degrees… really narrow new areas, fiber optic image processing or whatever, and big employers don’t know what to do with them. They’re used to mechanical engineers, they know what the programs consist of. The new degrees sound like interesting things to study, but that’s as far as they go.

Jul. 11th, 2021 07:50 pm (UTC)
A woman after my own heart! My path was different but the end result was the same: a university degree in a field that paid well and where my skills would be in demand.

I got married at 17 and had my first son three months after I turned 19. My husband and I went on to have two more sons, one when I was 22 and the third when I was 25. We had a happy family life, but with some rough economic times. Walt got laid off when my youngest was six months old, and I took the only jobs I could get: file clerk, very poor typist, and finally, several jobs doing what I'd now call 'junior accountant.' So when Walt finally got a job that paid enough so that I could stop working, I started attending the newly opened community college, then went on to get my B.S. in Accounting from Temple University. (Walter: "Oh my God, I married an accountant. I can't believe it. An accountant! OMG!")

No more taking any job that was offered! Full employment, fair pay, and plenty of opportunities to change jobs and move up.

Had I dreamed of being an accountant? Are you kidding? I hated math right through high school and took as few math courses as possible, so when my junior accounting positions showed me the way, I started out my university career by taking every remedial math course I could find, courses better described as arithmetic. I knew what I needed to do to get where I wanted to be, and it paid off. FanSee
Jul. 12th, 2021 02:24 am (UTC)

That’s good because the other comments are accusing me of being terribly mean, telling people to consider economic implications when picking a path.

Look, if you KNOW what you want to do, must be an actor or something, fine do it! But so many of us get to a point, like you say, where we lose our pickiness about what we want to be. But know WHERE we want to be! All things being equal shouldn’t we tell kids about this idea, just as a suggestion?

Jul. 12th, 2021 01:51 am (UTC)
This was cool to read about your career path. Thank you for sharing!
Sounds like you went through a couple of phases and a pretty in-depth thought process on the way to where you are now :)

I think that people have taken issue here not with you sharing your own journey, but then following up by questioning why others don't think and behave as you did. Which implies that you think "your way" was the "right way", whether you meant that or not.

As someone who had to watch my mother die a horrible, painful death at the way-too-early age of 44, the reason I pursued music (which everyone seems to need but no one wants to pay for) is because A) I loved doing it, and B) I had to learn through her very awful death that life is far too short to spend doing what is socially acceptable, or practical, or logical all the time.

My mother wanted to be a baker, but she didn't realize that until late in life. After spending her entire life doing what her parents wanted; going to school for what others told her was most practical; getting married and having kids like society wanted; she finally, finally realized what she loved to do, and she wanted to share it with others. She had just been hired by our local upscale restaurant as a professional baker. And six months later she was dead.

That's just a snippet of experience that led me to pursue an impractical profession in an oversaturated field. I knew more or less what I was getting into, and that it wasn't the "ideal" career choice. And I did not care one G-D bit. Because I had to hear my mother scream not only from pain, but from regret. And although I will have regrets, pursuing music will never, never be one of them. Even if I had failed, I would have tried my best before letting it go and pursuing something else. A lot of people never get the chance to even try. And I wanted to value my chance, my possibility, even more than money, if that makes sense.

Others will choose to pursue wealth, or have twelve kids, or spend all their money on crack, or devote their lives to bettering the world. Each of us makes decisions based on so many many factors in our lives. It's boggling! Your story is amazing. I don't think you meant to insult anyone. But in answer to your question of "Why don't other people think this way?", the billions of us out there have perspectives and dreams and experiences that rival the number of stars in the sky. We cannot all follow the same train of thought any more than we can be born from the same womb. That's my thought...thanks, it was fun to contemplate this :)

Edited at 2021-07-12 02:01 am (UTC)
Jul. 12th, 2021 02:47 am (UTC)
but you had success and got to be a professional musician, and you knew it was what you loved, and you made an informed decision, so I'm in full support! I think people are taking my story here very personally and ignoring the big where I said if you're not sure pick a job based on economics. I realize not everybody is offered a choice, and some people ARE sure what they want, so I have no criticisms there. Just trying to help some future kids who run across this entry, if that ever happens.
Jul. 12th, 2021 10:17 am (UTC)
I see what you're saying, I think:
If you have a passion or a dream, pursue it, but if not, maybe go with what is economically practical over random things you enjoy. Did I get it?

That makes sense and also I totally agree with you.
To be honest, I didn't pick up on this piece of advice while reading; maybe I got fixated on the paragraph about the Food Network chefs?

Anyway, thank you for taking the time to explain, you shouldn't have to defend what you wrote regardless what points you were going for. I enjoyed reading about how you got where you are today career-wise, it's very cool that you had such diverse interests over time and then managed to narrow it down to something that has served you well and that you enjoy. The possibilities we all have are really amazing :)

Edited at 2021-07-12 10:18 am (UTC)
Jul. 12th, 2021 01:53 am (UTC)
This is a wonderful question, obviously (from the comments) a hot topic, and I've never heard anyone ask it. I've heard "get more girls into STEM," but not "why don't people choose careers and education based on their employment prospects?

I'd hazard a guess that "What do you want to be when you grow up?" and "Barbie says, Girls can be ANYTHING!'" have something to do with it. You're supposed to have an idea of what you want, and the idea is supposed to be based on self-knowledge. We equate self-knowledge with maturity, which is correct. So kids keep looking inside for that inner knowing, and I think sometimes their choices are based on fantasy. Whenever some pipsqueak tells me he wants to be a lawyer or a pop star, I think, You have no idea of what's entailed, do you?

Some young people really have it; I mean, I think it's a big mistake not to pursue your dream if you really have one. You can decide later that musical theater is not going to embrace you, and pivot. But if you don't try, you'll never know what would have happened.

But why kids who don't really have a dream don't approach it more practically? I think that's not the narrative; the American narrative is "follow your dream" and also that getting what you want is the key to happiness.
Jul. 12th, 2021 02:51 am (UTC)
my mega-conspiracy is that I think the world either 1) tells women to pick underpaid careers or 2) purposefully underpays the jobs that women are more likely to take. and feminists have fought for decades about how to solve that problem. on one side, we should fight for higher salaries. on the other side, why not tell women to kick some doors down? I support both sides with my heart but you see which side I chose for my actions.

and I also hate asking kids what they want to be when they grow up. it was a fairly stressful question for me, even with the ideas I wrote about here. I loved that michelle obama's book ranted against asking that question, and that her path was not laid out at all, and kids should know that it's okay!

"you're not going to screw up and live the wrong life" - I read this in a book someplace when I was like 30, and wished like HELL I'd read it at 20 because I was scared all the time.
Jul. 12th, 2021 12:05 pm (UTC)
That's a great quote. I try to encourage my teen clients to stop angsting about college and career choice. I live in an area that is packed with Ph.D high achieving parents and they don't explicitly push the kids, but they are very focused and driven.

I think there's probably multiple determination going on in these choices; we socialize girls to be giving and other-oriented, which inclines them to jobs like nursing, teaching, therapist. To be more refined in this explanation, the girls who are good at understanding others and making them comfortable are rewarded for this, so they identify with it, while girls who are not good at it have less approval and social success.

I have also read that public school math is taught in a way that is more male oriented (I think the idea was that it is taught more abstractly, while girls understand more easily when given concrete examples). So we disadvantage them to start, for STEM.

There is also a lot of messaging about ambition vs love. I believed implicitly - in the 60s and 70s - that if I privileged love, both romantic and familial, in my choices, I would need to aim for something humble and flexible in my career. We teach boys that career success will bring love, and we teach girls the opposite. I know that there's been a lot of feminist work around this, but I think the messaging is still pervasive.

So when girls think about kicking down doors - and I mean, think unconsciously - they feel self-doubting and alone.

Jul. 12th, 2021 08:27 pm (UTC)
I want to take exception to that quote, myself. You've got someone sharing in the thread just above about seeing someone they care about, who died "screaming from regret". People may not end up with "the wrong life" on a metaphysical level but there are MANY ways we might get lives that are less than what we hoped for. People incarcerated or who live long periods of time with addictions, who waste years in unhappy relationships or who never get to make the choices they wanted regarding children, school, geographies, jobs and other major life events, there are sooo many ways to take a turn that leads to places one never intended on going. Maybe you haven't personally experienced regret of this magnitude, but I can point out dozens of people in my world who would argue that they might be, in fact, living the wrong life. It's sad but not at all that uncommon.
Jul. 15th, 2021 12:17 pm (UTC)
I drove to work yesterday looking at the homeless people gathered under the El line, thinking about the sentence “you’re not going to screw up and live the wrong life”, and what an incredible lack of empathy that statement holds. How unimaginably cruel it would be to say to those people. I think it’s a testament to an incredible amount of privilege one might live, to believe this statement into adulthood—and also blame, blaming those people for their situation, they must deserve it, since “screwing up and living the wrong life” has been taken off the table. But I guess a belief like that might also be reassuring to some, because it also reassures the lucky that they deserve all the good things they lucked into, and reassures them that their world could never have been otherwise.

I can’t imagine this is how you see it, though, and wonder if there’s another explanation. I also know this is part of my “gratitude” thing…I DO see the bad outcomes I have (sometimes narrowly) avoided. My childhood religion taught empathy as “there but for the grace of god go I”. Which I think is about the opposite of the other sentence.

It’s hard to balance.
Jul. 17th, 2021 02:52 pm (UTC)
to be clear, I use that quote when I am talking to 22-year-old engineering interns who are wondering "maybe I should have majored in aerospace instead of mechanical!". That is my life, that's who comes to me for advice. I know I am privileged, but they are too. I try to make them feel better by telling them it's okay to be the feather in the wind like forrest gump sometimes, just go with your path, you never know what's going to happen but it will VERY LIKELY be okay.

"there but for the grace of God go I"... when I first read that I thought it's the same thing. You don't know what's going to happen, there are many factors, you acknowledge helplessness, but you keep going. I googled some more of the meaning and it's more a reminder that you could be in that place of self-destruction/addiction/incarceration, just as much as the guy next to you. But you should be thankful that God prevented it. Again, isn't it telling you that the decision-making is not as important as your faith?
Jul. 18th, 2021 01:03 pm (UTC)
I see! In the narrow space of "aerospace vs. mechanical engineering" I'll allow it. Just not as a general lifestyle platitude. ;)
Jul. 12th, 2021 04:39 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I have a degree in Classical Studies. I knew that I would never do anything it with it specifically, but I majored in it anyway. Why? Because even if I hadn't, I would have taken all the classes. It was (and is) a passion of mine and I'm thrilled I spent my time in college learning what thrilled me. I could have very easily been a math major, but it just didn't excite me the way classics did (and does). Now I have an MSIS and work in instructional design. I guess my point here is that often times we fall into careers that have nothing to do with our college degrees and still make us just as happy.
Jul. 16th, 2021 10:11 pm (UTC)
Some people are more interested in doing what they love or what they're good at than in making a lot of money. Universities tried to recruit me for engineering. My father tried to get me to go in that direction. Yes, I had high math SATs. But despite being good at it, I dislike math. I knew I would not enjoy the work. I didn't want to spend the next 50 years doing something I hated, even if it paid well. I wanted to be a writer and editor, so I majored in English. I also made sure to get marketable skills along the way, so I would be employable. After years as a magazine editor, I quit my day job to write books. It doesn't pay all that well, but we manage, and I'm doing what I want to do.

My son is a rising sophomore in college. He's a Music Composition major. He still may pick up a second major -- I've encouraged him to, to expand his options. He's really good at math and physics. But a lot of people are good at math and physics. He has something few people do: he is an extraordinarily talented composer who wrote his first sonata at age 10 and has been winning national competitions since he was 13.

Of course I want him to be able to make a living; we've had many discussions about just how he might be able to do that as a composer. As important as that is, I think it would actually be irresponsible of me to try to steer him away from a field where he might have something really significant to contribute. He knows he probably won't be able to get his dream job -- composing classical music for a major symphony -- at least not for a long time. But he's researched the field and we know that video game companies are a huge market for compositions; the large ones have composers on staff.

I say be practical, but figure out how to do that while also following your heart.
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