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It Seems To Me: What do you want to be?

Posted: Friday, May 3rd, 2013

We’re nearing the end of the semester, and I find myself thinking about the choices we make in our lives. Students go to school to prepare for their futures, and sometimes that preparation includes discovering what they want their futures to be.

That’s more difficult than it might seem.

When John Lennon was a child, he was asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“Happy,” he answered.

The person who asked the question was taken by surprise. “You don’t understand the question,” he exclaimed.

“You don’t understand life,” the future songwriter retorted.

I remember being asked the same question when I was a child, and I took it very seriously. While most children would happily respond by saying something like, “I want to be an astronaut” or “I want to be a cowboy,” I’d agonize over it and confess that I had no idea what I wanted to be.

It seemed important to me. After all, adults were always asking the question. Besides, if I were going to spend the rest of my life being something, it seemed I should choose to be something that made me happy!

I’ve often asked students what success means to them, and their answers often surprise me. They will list things like “having a good job,” “owning a nice car,” “having a lot of money,” or “raising a happy family.” That makes sense, but then I’ll ask, “What do you consider a good job?” Usually, the answer is something like, “One that pays me enough to have a nice house, drive a nice car, and raise a happy family.”

Very seldom will a student say, “One that makes me happy.”

So I started taking time to try to get my students to think about careers that will make them happy. I’ll tell the story of one of my professors, Jack Williamson, who had chosen a career that made him happy. Jack was a science fiction writer, the first to be inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. He also taught creative writing courses at Eastern New Mexico University. When he was in his nineties, Jack announced he was going into semi-retirement so he could focus more on his writing. He would only be teaching one class a semester.

While most people choose careers with the thought that they will be able to retire early and live the life they dreamed of, Jack chose a career that he enjoyed so much, he didn’t want to stop doing it.

Sometimes I’ll hear students talk about the things that bring them joy, and then they’ll say that they can’t do that, so they are going into a field that offers security instead.

More than anything else, I try to prepare my students for change, because that seems to be the one thing we can count on. The world is constantly changing. The jobs that many of my students will hold don’t even exist yet, and the one thing that I am certain of is that security is fleeting.

“How can you ever be happy,” I’ll ask, “if you aren’t even sure what makes you happy?”

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