I accompanied my eighth-grade daughter Izzie last week to freshman orientation at the high school. This was an opportunity for the 8th graders to tour GRC and speak with teachers about which “educational track” they might pursue. Basically, it was to get the students thinking about The Question. You know the one I mean.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
It’s an important question, one about purpose and meaning. A question which, once answered, serves as a future road map. Now, my daughter is a world-class Rule Follower. Had she been in the Garden of Eden with Adam, none of us would know shame and sorrow. Mankind would be naked and blissful, the Forbidden Fruit still hanging off the tree. So The Question vexes her. She wants to make sure she gets the answer right. Does she follow the college-ready track and take as many AP classes as she can or does she take advantage of the hands-on classes so she gains certifications instead of credits, ready for the workforce upon graduation?
She asked my advice. I have always told her I don’t care what she chooses to do with her life, as long as she is a decent human being who brings value to the world. But she rarely asks for my input, so I asked for a few days to answer her request mindfully.
Here is where I landed. There is no right answer. The Question is as unanswerable at age 13 as it is at age 45 because the question itself is wrong. What do you want to be when you grow up? implies that we should all be one thing. Can only be one thing. But I believe that we are, by design, what science calls multipotentialites. None of us is only one thing; we have the ability to flourish in many areas and fields. In fact, most college graduates today will have, and succeed at, 12-15 jobs before choosing something long-term.
My daughter is frustrated with me, rolls her eyes as I roll out this statistic. “But I want to know what to do!” she wails. “Well, I can tell you what worked for me,” I reply. “Follow your curiosity until your skillset reveals itself.”
I did not tell her to follow her passion, don’t think this is particularly great advice. To whit, my daughter is passionate about Cheetos, Stranger Things and show tunes in equal measure. I’m not sure any of those are great things to hang a future career on. But following her curiosity embraces the idea of learning and growing, holds to the fact that there are, in fact, a countless number of things to learn in life. Every successful and interesting person I know is curious, soaking up all the wisdom life has to offer.
My first job was as a waitress, where I realized I loved talking to people. I became a kindergarten teacher, then a librarian, then a yoga teacher, eventually opening the first yoga studio in this town. My yoga training sent me back to school to study anatomy and physiology, which lead to certifications as a Nutrition Coach and a Yoga Therapist. That training introduced me to neuroscience, which led me to becoming a Mindfulness Coach. I wanted to share mindfulness with the world and so wrote a book and started an online channel. I loved the writing process, so I pushed my way into this very newspaper as a columnist. Now I find myself giving keynote speeches at huge conferences. When people ask me what I do, I don’t actually know what to say. I do lots of great things. What will I be doing in another decade? Hard to say. But if I follow the path of curiosity, and work hard to keep honing my skillset, I’m certain to be fulfilled.
I now understand that my career trajectory has been about chasing flow. Flow is the intersection of enchantment and ability, that sweet spot when you have enough skills to be successful, but the work is still challenging and interesting. When you know enough to be absorbed and excited by what you are doing, but not enough to be considered a master. I am in flow when I teach yoga, give a speech or write. Looking back, it’s clear that my skillset was (and is) sharing information with others. So as long as I can apply that to what I’m doing, I will feel happy and fulfilled. If fulfillment means financial stability, all the better. But fulfillment matters most.
I circle back to my daughter, suggest she take a few college-prep classes and a few career-ready classes and just see what lights her up. “Plus something in the Humanities,” I add. “Art. Literature. Philosophy. Because, you know, decent human being and all that.”
She rolls her eyes again, but smiles, teenager for, “That was exactly what I need to hear, but I will still pretend that you’re clueless.”