Several years ago, LinkedIn promoted a campaign in which they encouraged users to share their childhood career ambitions. When you were 15, how did you complete the sentence “when I grow up, I want to be…”?
And so, I dutifully shared my own childhood ambition. I had wanted to be a TV journalist, earnestly inspired by Christian Amanpour. But alas, it wasn’t to be! I will return to the issue of what I eventually became. But first, allow me to dissect that statement—“when I grow up, I want to be…”—a little deeper.
I believe this statement represents more than a career wish. To me, it is indicative of an innocent conception of a holistically idealistic life.
Between my early childhood — from around six years — through my teenage years (around 16), I meandered through various career ambitions: TV news anchor, physician, chemical engineer (to specialize in making perfumes), and finally (coming rather full circle), journalism. In college, I first selected journalism as my major, then eventually graduated with a B.A. in English writing (before eventually earning a master’s and PhD. in communication).
But if you try to ask me why I wanted to do all the above things, I doubt that I would have an insightful answer. I suppose as a child, TV anchors (with Ugandan English anchor Francis Bbaale as the archetype) represented a neat and dignified persona. Later, I suppose being a physician represented the virtues of extreme intelligence and benevolence.
As for the perfume-making/chemical-engineering ambition? No clue; perhaps I was at the time obsessed with the sciences in high school, not out of sincere fascination or deep interest, but as a status symbol of intelligence. Again, no clue.
The above discussion might provoke a worthy question for us all: why did you want to be what you wanted to be as a child, and why do you want to be—or why do you enjoy being—what you want to be or are, today (as an adult)? Role models perhaps — your parents, or the likes of Francis Bbaale or Christian Amanpour for some of us? Or formative experiences that convinced us of the worthiness of the profession, say a physician or nurse that took good care of someone you loved or a teacher that impressed you so much?
Regardless, for me, the childhood ideal of a good or enjoyable or worthy profession has crashed messily with the cold harsh reality of the need to pay one’s bills. Apparently, we tend to seek both career-happiness and a holistically good quality of life—which comes in large part from our careers, side-by-side with financial success.
How should we then balance those demands? At this point in my (early) career and adulthood stage, I am not sure. But I have learned the hard way that we need to look at the big picture in order to realize that regardless of how challenging our careers seem to us in the moment, there are solutions out there.
For instance, whereas I didn’t thrive there and thus had to leave after a brief duration, I have several colleagues who make a decent living as professors in China. And whereas the gig-economy isn’t ideal (and is probably often exploitative and “not worth it”), one can take advantage of part-time jobs such as driving Uber.
What is also true, and rather unfair, is that our cohort’s generation(s)—i.e., the millennials and gen.-Zs—seem to have missed out on the myriad of easy career-pathways that previous generations enjoyed. I have come across an abundance of anecdotal and scholarly evidence over the years of the fact that the other generations (the Baby Boomers especially, and the members of generation X and others in between) seem to have had far better chances for success compared to our generations.
With nothing more than primary or high school qualifications, many of our parents were able to get well-paying blue-collar jobs e.g. as factory workers. And yet for our millennial generations, the dynamics are a lot more complex.
Apparently, there are plenty more opportunities for them — especially via roles related to the digital and knowledge industries. But these roles also require longer and more specialized education and training.
At the end of the day, I have to console myself with the conclusion that in relation to careers and life in general, happiness is a temporary state of mind, not a final destination.
Perhaps you are or will be happy in your chosen or assigned profession; perhaps you are not or won’t be. But you can be happy, regardless. Besides, one can argue that ultimately, we are all versions of Peter Pan: we will never truly grow up. Thus, we might as well keep our career-related and general idealism alive. What do you want to be, when you grow up?
The author is a communication and social-science researcher and mental-health advocate, based in the USA.