A few weeks ago I saw a meme going around that asked:
“What would your occupation be if you had followed your childhood dreams?”
On the surface that’s a straightforward question. The first half even acknowledges that we are more than what we do for a living. It asks “what would your occupation be?” instead of the more common “what did you want to be when you grew up?”
The second half of the question is where the problems begin: “if you had followed your childhood dreams?” It implies there was something deeply important your first occupational desires. It doesn’t call them wants – it calls them dreams.
We have a million wants every day. And they’re important. Most of them stem from our basic needs: food, clothing, and shelter. Companionship, relationship, and sex. Amusement and intellectual stimulation. Though all too often, they come from the manipulations of the advertising industry.
Dreams are… more. They’re not whims and they’re not even basic needs. Dreams come from the depths of our souls. They’re part of who and what we are – they’re part of our identity. They’re what we keep working for year after year. If we’re forced to abandon them it’s a tragedy.
So as it’s phrased, this meme implies that you did yourself a disservice by not “following your childhood dreams” for a paying career. And that’s a problem.
In fairness, most people answered the question in a straightforward manner that indicated they didn’t give it a second thought. But I have to wonder if the question didn’t linger with them, perhaps generating a twinge of regret… or more than a twinge.
As always in matters like these, I’m a Druid, not a life coach. My education is in engineering and business, not psychology. I can’t tell you what you should do. I can only tell you what I’ve done, what I haven’t done, and what I learned from all of it.
Trying on careers to see how they fit
I wanted to be everything I saw that looked interesting. I wanted to be a football player, a baseball player, a policeman, and the captain of an aircraft carrier. I wanted to be a scientist, a congressman, and a history professor. I wanted to be a minister – I just wasn’t sure which kind. I grew up Baptist but I knew I didn’t want to be a Baptist preacher. I was fascinated with the Catholic priesthood, but I knew that whole poverty and celibacy thing wasn’t for me.
Funny how that worked out…
While a few of us know exactly what we want to be and do from an early age, I think most of us do this, or something like it. We try these occupations on in play and see how they feel. They’re not dreams – they’re not even wants. They’re possibilities.
The first thing I seriously considered becoming was a lawyer. I saw plenty of lawyers on TV. They were smart, they helped people in difficult situations, and they made a lot of money. It seemed like a good career. I checked books out of the school library on law and courts and such.
But at some point, my research turned up the reality of the law profession. The best graduates from the best schools make ridiculous amounts of money. Others scramble for whatever jobs they can find. Successful lawyers work ridiculous hours.
And then there’s the whole matter of “the law is the law.” I’ve always been more concerned with the ends than the means, more concerned with the spirit of justice than with the letter of the law.
Care to guess my opinion of originalism?
I tried on a career in law and I didn’t like the way it fit. So I kept looking.
Finding a path
In the 7th grade I had a class that was a series of 6-week mini-classes. The only one I remember for sure was the class on careers. It was there that I discovered engineering. I found that you needed to be good in math and science, and I was. It didn’t pay as well as being a hot-shot lawyer, but it paid enough, and employment prospects were very good. I decided engineering was the career for me.
Even within that broad field, there was still some more trying on. First I wanted to be a civil engineer, because I wanted to build bridges. But I didn’t like the project-based employment variations, so I started out majoring in mechanical engineering – I wanted to design cars. Then in college I ran head-first into class called Transport Phenomena – it was basically heat transfer at the molecular level. It was the only class I ever failed in my life. There was more going on than this (there’s never only one thing) but that convinced me to change my major to industrial engineering.
That’s worked out well. In my late 20s I went back to school for an MBA. That degree took me a year longer than a masters in industrial engineering would have, but I thought it would be more versatile for the future. We’ll never know how the other path might have worked out, but again, this one has worked out well.
Making a living but not a life
Here’s why the meme question bothered me so much. First, it implied that your occupation really should be what you thought you wanted as a child, which ignores the necessity of the trying-on process – a process that continued well into adulthood for me, and I think, for most people.
More than that, by calling it a dream it elevates the choice of occupation to a matter of great importance. For some of us – especially those who really did know exactly what they wanted to be and do when they were kids – it is. For most of us, though – including those of us who build “professional” careers – they’re simply a way to make a living.
It took me three layoff notices and resulting cross-country moves to figure out that I was never going to find my identity in my paying job.
I’ve written about this numerous times over the years and I’m not going to tell that story again. I will say that if you feel regrets because of a career choice – or pretty much any other choice – be honest with yourself – compassionately honest.
Your journey leads forward, not backward
If after much meditation and contemplation you’re convinced your first dream really was a dream and that’s really who and what you need to be, then go for it. It’s rarely too late.
But it’s unlikely that going back and chasing the first career or occupation you tried on is a good idea. If it didn’t fit then, it probably doesn’t fit now. And while I’m always in favor of people doing what it takes to make themselves ready for a better job, a better job is still a job. It’s not your identity – it’s not your life’s work.
We live in a time of unprecedented change: technology, society, economics, politics, the environment… And regardless of how today’s election plays out, this rapid change will continue. A Biden victory will not take us back to the Obama years. A Trump victory won’t take us back to the 1950s – or the 1890s – but it will take us places I don’t want to go. In either case we need to be prepared to move forward.
And here’s the good news – you can still try things on and see how they fit, whether you’re talking about your paying job, your spiritual journey, your relationships, or anything else. It might be a little awkward playing dress-up at age 35 or 45 or 65 (or then again, maybe not), but you can still read, study, and do research. Talk to people who are doing what you think you might want to do. Let your imagination wander into what might be. Do divination and see what things will look and feel like if you take this path or that.
Build on what you have, toward what you want
You have skills and experiences you didn’t have when you were a child – how can you build on them? What can you do that will help make the world a better place – and bring you fulfillment in the process?
Maybe you can get paid for doing it. Maybe you’ve still got to make a living with an ordinary job so you can pursue your true calling in your off hours. That’s harder – I’m looking forward to being a full-time Druid after I retire (hopefully!) in more-than-a-few more years.
I’m not a Wiccan, but I still have great admiration for the Charge of the Goddess. Sing, feast, dance, make music and love… and also write, paint, act, march, protest, run for office – whether you get paid for it or not.
This isn’t a rebuttal to a meme – the meme isn’t important enough to merit a rebuttal. But the meme made me remember the importance of trying on roles in life, and of recognizing that for most of us, how we make a living and how we make a life are two different things.
And it’s a strong reminder that our future lies in front of us, not behind us… especially in the days and weeks to come.