Saturday, February 27, 2010

Volume 5, Number 6: Career Quandaries

Last night, Lucy Knisley (a creative genius both as a cartoonist and a musician) posted her latest comic strip on her blog. It's about all the negative reactions one may receive after answering the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

In Lucy's case, an old man told her that cartooning was "a really difficult field" and "a man's game" and it got me thinking about similar events in my childhood and how that question has frustrated me almost my whole life.

I believe I was 9 years old when I developed an interest in archaeology. The movie Raiders of the Lost Ark had just come out, and I had read a fascinating article in Cricket magazine about how the dead were mummified in Egypt. The idea of unearthing and restoring old relics so today's people could see them... that was just so interesting to me (and still is today; for example, I saved and restored a 30-year-old snow thrower last August; it was just hours away from being hauled out as garbage). My Dad responded that it was a low-paying line of work.

At 13, I wanted to go into advertising, at the advice of one of my teachers. My Dad told me that it was a field where the supply far exceeded the demand; he envisioned a scenario where I would end up having to work in a factory, then be out of a job altogether after that factory replaced me with a robot.

(OK, now I'm about to go off on a tangent here, but it's related to the whole "what do you want to be when you grow up" subject:)

The most frustrating part came at 18, because when you go into college, you're practically forced to pick a line of work. Long story short, I decided on accounting (on account of my strength in math and my ability to pay attention to detail), but I didn't get into the University of Michigan's School of Business Administration. I had an interest in teaching but it would have required taking a whole new set of courses. So I settled on another major (Actuarial Mathematics) which is a field that is in demand, and did take advantage of my math skills and the accounting coursework I already had, but that subject was extremely difficult. So when I left college, I left with a slate that was almost as blank as the one I had when I entered college (save for a Bachelor of Sciences degree).

The first time I found a job that I both liked what I did and the pay I got, that happened in 1999, when I was almost 27 (I was a data analyst at a market research firm, sort of like the job I have today, except the job I have today is better).

That's too darn long.

The point I'd like to make is, our society should allow people as much time as they need to find the kind of vocation that suits them, regardless of what other people think, without being told they don't have the experience. I've met at least few people who wound up in a different line of work than the one they studied at college. My older brother left college as a software engineer, but is now a lawyer. My best friend graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in communications, but he became a very successful mortgage broker at Quicken Loans (he has since been promoted to a Regional Vice-President position). I have a friend who graduated with a master's degree in marketing, but has since moved on to nursing, a totally different field.

What we have today, instead, is a system where people have to go to college (and spend tons of money for the "privilege") just to get a job, then be told upon leaving college that they don't have the experience, then spend more time to find out that what they thought they wanted, wasn't for them after all. It's a waste of time and money orchestrated by Corporate America and today's colleges and universities (both of which care more about profits than people). The former doesn't want employees who want to "just try out" a certain line of work, and the latter doesn't train people for the real world. The end result is a load of unhappy, underdeveloped employees. It's a flat-out broken system and we're better off with one where people could explore vocational options--especially ones that may not have occurred to them--and go to college at the same time (and whichever employer wishes to develop that employee, would be paying for that employee's advanced education).


  1. Yep, I can relate to your college experience. I think maybe after high school everyone should have to work or join the peace corp or something (which of course is still an option), and it would give some time to sort all that out. Unless you're rich, and college becomes more than anything, a big party.

    I had no idea what I wanted to do at that time in my life either. I wish I had gone into radio, as I love music, or the arts (although it doesn't pay worth a crap, at least I find it interesting).

  2. If I had to do it all again, I would have looked into finding a college/university that had a "sports management" major. Working in the front office of a pro baseball or football team would be very appealing to me.