So, What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?

Question #1: Can you imagine your younger, sixteen or seventeen year-old self telling a career counselor in high school that you wanted to be a:        

  • Bioinformatics Programmer
  • Geographic Information Systems Specialist
  • Chief Listening Officer
  • Food Stylist
  • Computational Linguist
  • Field test analyst for recreational equipment
  • Cryptographer
  • Sound Design Specialist
  • Chief Innovation Officer
  • Deep sea underwater welding specialist

I didn’t think so.

Question #2: Is the occupation you currently have one you strategically and clearly “chose” back in high school?


Question #3: How would you respond if your son or daughter said they were going to make a living teaching saxophone lessons on YouTube?

I see.

Curiously, I happen to be in the business, so to speak, of preparing young people for “the future.”  It’s a cool job, and not one I ever imagined having back in high school. I am Director of Instruction with West Vancouver Schools – arguably the top performing school district in the country. The primary focus of my job is on Learning and Innovation, which just happen to be two of my very favorite things. Most of my efforts, of course, are intended to ensure the learning experiences we provide our students are ones that will best prepare them to successfully navigate the future. This is not as easy as it sounds. As has been said many times before, kids in school today may well grow up to enter jobs and careers that do not even exist yet. More than this, they may well live in a world where people are increasingly expected to create and/or invent their own opportunities and roles. Think about this last point for a second.  Now tell me it is not simultaneously one of the most daunting, frightful, and extremely exciting propositions you can imagine.

Does an “A” in Math and English guarantee you have developed the kind of skill set required to make your way in the world today (take a look at that list of careers under question #1 again before you answer)? It doesn’t take a genius to see that we need to do a lot more than produce people who can recite dates from memory, write in cursive, and explain the process of mitosis.

We want our schools to require students to do more than “know stuff.” Facts are cheap and easy to come by. But the ability to articulate a complex idea, to logically and convincingly defend a position, to compel a group of people to take a certain course of action, to unravel the flaws in an argument, to consider the broader implications of a decision, these are things that can significantly effect one’s life opportunities and add value to the world we live in. This is not to say that content mastery is not important. We need our physicists to know their material, and our engineers, and our plumbers, and so on. Learning how a cell works matters. But what will you DO with this knowledge? How will you use it in a way that adds something and/or contributes to your life, your community, the world at large?

I had the pleasure of hearing Dave Redekopp speak recently at TedxWestVancouverEd. Dave holds a PhD in Educational Psychology, and is president of the Life-Role DevelopmentGroup Ltd, a national career development firm. Dave had some wonderful messages to share when it comes to choosing careers. Chief among them is the notion that when we ask our high school students “what career” they will choose we actually do them a disservice. This is because the assumptions behind this question wrongly suggest two things:

1. That it is actually possible to know that which may well be unknowable. 

2. That choosing only “one” occupation to last the rest of your life is realistic.

Paraphrasing a Stanford colleague, Dr. Redekepp says:

Asking students to choose an occupation they have never tried out is like asking them to name their future spouse before allowing them to date.  - John Krumboltz  

I would like to point out that I come at this topic not merely from a professional lens, but from a personal one. I have two teenager daughters. My oldest will graduate high school this year. The topic of “what will you do with the rest of your life?” comes up often. I don’t expect her to know. But I do expect her to identify themes and strands. What do you enjoy? What are you good at? What do you wonder about? How can you contribute to the world? The planet? The economy?

It would be easy to become overwhelmed by all this. Many young people do. But they shouldn’t. The important thing is to do something. Set out on a course. When you move, in any direction, new avenues and opportunities previously unseen will unfold. A wise person once told me, 

“you can’t steer a parked car.” 

It’s great advice. Inertia kills. It’s motion that matters. Movement.

So next time you want to ask a young person what career they want, you might try reframing the question slightly.  Ask instead:

What sort of future do you imagine for yourself? 
What steps do you plan to take to move toward the life you want?
What are the kinds careers or occupations that appeal to you at this point?
What opportunities do you see for yourself?

And by the way,  it turns out that it is very possible to earn a great living teaching Jazz Saxophone on YouTube.  A recent article in the New York Times called The New Making It shows just how far we have come with career options today. 

And in case you are wondering more about the unusual job opportunities today (and tomorrow), check these out:


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