If I had one shot at borrowing the DeLorean, I’d take it back to late 2008. With the Roman Empire and Victorian Era England out there, not to mention the age of the dinosaurs (although that would require a lot of plutonium), it doesn’t seem like that thrilling of a choice, I know. But here’s why: my then-self was in dire need of a message from my present self, and here it is: You have options.
That’s it. Just three words; but when realized and taken to heart, the combination of those three words is more powerful than many sentences or soliloquies I could dream up. Think of what those words might mean to a patient receiving dire news, a partner in an abusive relationship, an elderly person facing diminished independence, an adult braving the everyday with a quiet burden. Now think of what those words might mean to a five-year-old at an ice cream shop, a preteen who loves three different sports, a hopeful high school junior, a college student. Each situation renders a different set of options, but to the chooser, the freedom of choice can make a world of difference.
One opportunity to realize the meaning of those three words usually presents itself to us at a young age. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This open-ended question creates a veritable goldmine of large-scale daydreams, teeming with images of carrying out any variety of occupations we can imagine. For some, it unlocked one single dream; one fervent hope of becoming a certain something that they sought to “become” from the time they were very small. Some people truly have “always wanted to be,” a baseball player, a doctor, a florist, a teacher, a soldier, or a scientist. Some people have an innate knowledge of the one single job/profession/career that seamlessly combines their unique skill set and their heart’s passion.
For me, the answer to that familiar question was a bit harder to find in terms of a job, profession or career. I ran through a serious gamut of careers when pondering what I wanted to “be” – everything from ballerina to astronaut, marine biologist to bakery owner, longshore fisher(wo)man to archaeologist to pharmaceutical drug researcher to veterinarian to presidential speech writer – the list went on. College brought contemplation of being an elementary and special education teacher, a biology teacher, an English professor, a librarian, an anthropologist, a museum curator, a National Geographic columnist, and a lawyer. Throughout all this indecision and exploration, I had the gift of a wonderful support system of family members, educators, and mentors that made me feel as though any one of these ideas was a viable option. Some options garnered more support than others, of course. Still, I was fortunate enough to believe that I was only limited by my choice. Yes, fortunate, not foolish or naïve; it’s a blessing to be made to feel that you could quite literally do anything.
Let’s fast forward from that self, mind brimming with options, to late 2008. I had graduated college the previous spring and begun law school that fall. I was feeling all the textbook anxiety, low self-esteem and out-and-out panic of a first-year law student. I had been dating my now-husband for roughly seven months. I was in my studio apartment in the city, telling him over the phone of my fears and doubts about law school. I uttered the phrase, “I just don’t know if I can even do this,” or something very near to it. He asked me, “Then why don’t you do something else?” “There is NOTHING ELSE!” I responded with great indignation and many tears, sobbing in a fit of feeling misunderstood and unsupported.
Really? There is nothing else? A touch dramatic. That is the point in time when I needed to hear “You have options.” The voice on the other end of the phone was trying to tell me that, but not in so many words. What I heard was confirmation of my fear that I couldn’t do what I had set out to do; that I couldn’t be what I had decided to “be.” If that was the case, and I wasn’t in the process of “being” anything, then where did that put me? I refused to think about it.
What I believe I was intended to hear from the other end of the line was “You have options.” Not that I couldn’t do what I was trying to do – which was become an attorney – but that I could do something else. What I did do was finish law school, pass the bar and become an attorney. Turns out I could do it, and I did. But could I have done something else? Yes, I see now that I most certainly could have. There is always something else. Perhaps if I had thought about my options, which were burgeoning a mere year before that late 2008 conversation, I would have chosen to do something else. Perhaps I wouldn’t have. But it would have been good of me to give myself the freedom to consider both choices.
There’s a quote credited to John Lennon that goes like this: “…When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.” Of course, John was wise beyond his years, whatever his years numbered at that point, because he hit on the crux of many a career-oriented conundrum. In deciding what we want to be, or what we want to continue to be, from a career perspective, we first need to know and understand what makes us happy to do. I am always going to be me, regardless of what it is that I happen to do. I don’t have to cram all of who I am into an occupational title or category in order to solidify my existence. Making a career choice is better framed in terms of what we want to do to achieve that happiness as opposed to what we want to be. What that ends up being may not be what we anticipated before we ventured to do it, or it may change over time. We can all fill many different roles; each person has many different talents. It is what we choose to do in order to be our most fulfilled selves that should guide our career paths and goals in life. Changing course doesn’t have to change who you are. A change can actually be borne of greater understanding of who you are at the moment when you decide to make it. It may be propelled by an increased confidence in a set of skills that you have.
I’ve learned that there is a difference between not being able to do something, and choosing not to do something, and neither of those occurrences need to be surrounded by shame when accompanied by thoughtfulness and effort. Even if you’ve never considered turning aside from your chosen career, if you no longer feel fulfilled or happy, or if you think you might be really great at something else, you owe yourself the freedom to ponder another path. Remember: you have options.