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Friday, April 1, 2011

When I Grow Up

 There were very few moments in my life when I questioned what I wanted to be. The list of careers I'd envisioned was very small. At various times I'd wanted to be a mommy, a teacher, a pediatrician and then a journalist. That was it. The first one could go hand-in-hand with any of the other three. I wanted to be a teacher in my very first years of school as I imagine a lot of children do. By about age seven I'd changed to the doctor route of thinking which lasted until my sophomore year in high school when I sat in a journalism class and then I knew within moments of composing my first piece that I wanted to be a writer. And being a journalist fit with my natural curiosity - I could get paid to dig, research and ask people invasive questions and that was perfect.

Throughout college I studied communication and political science in a liberal arts environment while outside of class I worked for four years at my college newspaper. I was always driven with a single-minded purpose of what I wanted to do and how I was going to accomplish that. And then I graduated and entered the very real world of small-town journalism - and for the first time ever I hated what I was doing. Pleasing advertisers was now paramount. Quantity of stories trumped quality. And one day when I stared at the flats and found a glaring error in the content of a headline that didn't match what it said in a story I pointed it out to the editor only to be told that "you are too concerned with accuracy." And that was that. I found myself crying on the phone to my mom that this job was never going to get better. And for the first time in my life I didn't have a plan. I applied for more journalism jobs but eventually I found a fit for myself in the world of public relations and event planning. It was the natural flip side of what I had trained to do in life.

And then fifteen years later I was sitting here facing the same question - now what? Did I just hate my job or did I hate what I did? Was I even a good public relations professional? Could I do this for the rest of my life? And fundamentally I was again staring at the question of What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? even though I'd given it very little thought in the past. I had been applying furiously during the past month for employment in the same field in which I was working, but somehow now that I no longer had a job I felt the need to examine if it was even what I wanted to do.

In my misery at work I'd often dreamed and talked about doing other things. I'd investigated graduate schools as a means to a career change a few times. But now I was thinking this was my last chance to really get it right. If I wanted to make a major leap this was the time. And because I'd been robbed of so much of myself and my esteem the last few years a lot of my questioning had to do with whether or not I was even capable of finding a career in my field. Was I good with people? Did I communicate well? Could I construct a sentence? Should I be calling myself a public relations professional? Should I be calling myself a writer? Was everyone laughing secretly when I said any of those things? I was petrified of the future all of a sudden and it was because I no longer knew what I was good at doing or what would make me happy. I'd been so wrapped up in hearing my faults and failures that I knew that the image I was seeing was warped, but I didn't know to what extent. What did I want to be when I grew up?

On the first morning that I was jobless I applied for several positions online. I investigated and viewed various stories about finding a career in the "new" world. I applied a lot of the advice I found but I still wondered about the questions that I was asking myself. The one thing that I knew in that moment was that never again could I work in the type of environment from which I had just escaped. Everyone has bad days at work but I had just had three bad years. I knew that since I was finding myself jobless that I just didn't want to settle for anything, I wanted to settle for something that I loved. I wanted to finally be able to tell people what I did with pride. And when someone told me how incredible what I did sounded, as they often had with my previous job, I wanted to nod my head and agree but really mean it.

So I spent time trying to extract my feelings about the tasks I actually performed in my job from how I felt about where I had worked. It was a very carefully executed surgery. I wanted to do this right. I wanted to have a clearly thought-out plan that made sense in light of the person I wanted to be and the talents that I possessed. I wanted to be one of those people that loved what I did for a living. I also wanted to be one of those people that used the talents that I had to excel. Now I just had to figure out what those things were.

The first thing that I discovered when I voiced some of these issues that were troubling me was that I had an incredible cheering section in my corner. There were people that believed in me when my faith in myself was faltering at best. I also knew that I was not a reliable source when it came to determining anything that related to my self-worth, identity or abilities in my current state; I was better but I was still wallowing in the depths of depression to which I had slowly sunk and getting out of that was not something that just happened overnight. I loved and trusted people that were in my life and I needed to lean on them for guidance when it came to determining what I might be able to do with my future and what things I could list as my talents. I had to do what was most uncomfortable to me - that which never came naturally - that which I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answer - I had to ask people about me and their perceptions about the person that I was. Did I want to know how the world viewed me? I knew what I'd been hearing for the past few years and none of it was good or solicited, was I ready to hear what people that I cared about thought? If any one of the people whose advice I sought didn't think that I was good at the things that I would need to start the career path that I wanted to take then what?

 And I hated that I was looking at questions in front of me that most people struggle with when they are much younger but I never had, and now I couldn't even put voice to them. When I grow up what do I want to be? And the one answer that kept appearing was happy - when I grow up I want to be happy. I was pretty sure that it wasn't a category that I could search for on careerbuilder.com or within the pages of What Color is Your Parachute. Happy is not really something that you get paid to be. How did I find that place within a career?  And what profession? How did I once again become that girl that sat in class her sophomore year in high school who just knew in an instant what she wanted to do? That girl was one that trusted her gut-instinct and then investigated the way to make that career path happen. She was the same girl that applied to one college, and one college only, early decision because when she went to her first (and again only) college visit she just knew it was the right place for her to be at that time. She was a girl that was so full of confidence in her academic abilities and what she wanted to be that when she wrote her admission essay she crafted her answer to the topic Tell us about a woman that you admire and why by writing about herself as she envisionied the accomplished person that she was twenty years in the future. And sadly the twenty year mark was a mere three years away and that girl had become none of those things.

I wondered how I'd fallen so far from the path of what I'd always wanted to be. And when I really thought about it - when I admitted it to myself - I'd given up. That girl had faced the world, found it difficult, took an easy route with a job that didn't challenge her and then trapped herself in it for fifteen years. How easy it had been for my employer to steal my self-worth when I'd left it at the door years before for the taking. In all those years when I was struggling with my past and hiding from the world I'd given up on what I wanted to be the first moment things weren't so easy. So I was still nagged by the notion of what I wanted to be when I grew up because at some point I'd stopped growing.  When I had implemented all the changes in my life for those few adult years when I'd been happy there were only two areas where I hadn't gotten it right and one of those was my career path. I'd never really delved into the depths of the question of what I wanted to do when I stopped wanting to be what I decided as my future at age sixteen.

So I was back at the basic questions now - What am I good at? What do I want to do? What do I want to be when I grow up?

And after much thinking and musing and questioning and talking and asking those questions of people that I was frightened to ask I finally discovered that I pretty much wanted to be doing the same kind of things that I had been with a few key differences. I wanted to work somewhere where I would get constructive criticism that would help me improve. I wanted to be good at what I did but never have it be something that was static or boring. I wanted to be challenged. I had the talents to do what I'd been doing but they weren't being fostered - I was going it alone. At the end of the day it wasn't going to matter to me that my check totaled any more than what I needed it to to cover my expenses of living with a little extra here and there to buy clothes I didn't need or go out with friends for some fun times. I was never going to be driven by money as much as passion. I needed to feel like I was making a difference in the world. I needed to leave my place of employment most days feeling good about what I was doing with my life. I needed to be able to tell people where I worked and what I did without feeling embarrassed. I just genuinely wanted to like what I was doing and I wanted to do it well.

So finally I had an idea of what kind of career "happy" was and I just needed to figure out a way and path to make it happen. Never again was I going to settle for just a job. I wasn't going to stunt my growth on the path to what I wanted to be when I grew up.

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