Teens Under ‘Pick a Career’ Pressure

How did you pick your current career, or could it better be said that your career picked you? When did you know what you “wanted to be when you grew up”? Think back to eighth grade: Imagine, at that age, committing to the career path you have now. Sound crazy? Well, that is pretty much what the state of Texas has asked 400,000 graduating eighth graders to do. What are they thinking?

Their system requires students to pick not so much a career but a specific path of study from among five high-school majors (STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math; business and industry; public service; arts and humanities, or advanced “multidisciplinary” studies). To be fair, advocates are taking a page from many other nations with similar practices. As in those countries, proponents in Texas argue that kids need to be focused in order to succeed. Probably so, but shouldn’t we first define what we mean by “succeed” before narrowing their focus?

Remain open to living a life with many professional and intellectual passions.

Even if we accept that the primary purpose of a high school education is to prepare students for their future jobs – and I don’t accept that – are academic “majors” the best way to do that? We know that kids’ bodies are still developing in all sorts of ways between age 14 and 18. Why not treat their minds in the same way, as works-in-progress?

I get the importance of paying attention to kids’ interests, and encouraging them to devote energy to those interests. But exploring one’s intellectual passions is a far cry from providing career counseling to 14-year-olds! I certainly try to keep from confusing those two ideas when it comes to my own kids, and I’d hope that serious educators do the same.

Ideally, should career be a function of pursuing what we love and letting the rest follow – as various teachers since Confucius (“Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life”) have suggested? Or should we figure out where our genuine talents lie, as other teachers and philosophers have advised, and then choose that path?

Some people do feel called to specific careers from a very early age. (I might even be one of them, especially if you apply a rather broad definition to what it is I do). Other people never quite figure out what they should do for a living. Most people fall somewhere in between. For all though, it seems that a combination of focus and flexibility is the way to go.

By all means, as I say to my own daughters, focus on what you love. And remain open to living a life with many professional and intellectual passions. Prepare yourself both for what interests you today, and to be well-positioned to fall in love with something new tomorrow. After all, learning is not a zero-sum deal; we shortchange ourselves, and our kids, when we treat it as if it is.

How did you reach your career decision, and how did you (or will you) advise your kids on how they should think about their own professional futures?



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