Fourteen years old, about to take what were called “options” back then – a set of subjects that were supposed to define my future – a career officer asked me what I wanted to do when I left school.
But as he asked me this strange, daunting question, a few questions of my own rattled around my head…
A career? Isn’t that what my Dad has, and he always seems stressed!
How am I supposed to know what I want to do for the rest of my life? I don’t even know where I want to go next weekend!
Hmmm, how about a private detective, a footballer, perhaps, a DJ, or prime minister?
The job of the career officer was to nudge us teenagers towards some of life’s perceived “safe” boxes in the hope we’d pick one and follow it without too much deviation. We finish school, go to college, go to university, travel for a few months, then get a job, climb up the ladder, get a mortgage, a car on finance and a pension. Job done.
The thing about this little chat is that everything from this point on changes. No longer are you allowed to just take life as it comes, no longer can you change with the wind and feel your way through each moment. No longer are you allowed to sleep without thinking what the next day will bring, nor make a decision without thinking how it might impact life as an adult. Things get more serious. No longer will just “turning up and being there” be enough.
This “little chat”, arranged in your “best interests” by the school, is where your mental freedom starts its imprisonment. Suddenly, instead of being praised for keeping an open mind to all of life’s possibilities, you are made to feel insecure for not having a life plan.
At this point, you are being asked to develop tunnel vision, along with practical, sensible and achievable goals, and work towards them every day, knowing that when you reach one level you must go to the next without too much deviation, as that could result in failure. You must accept that at every step of the way you will be hounded by the question “What next?” And you must always have an answer.
This is no exaggeration. I vividly remember sitting in that room and being asked. He was shocked that I had no idea what I wanted to be, and that my suggestions were way outside of the boxes he was required to fill in on his form. I came out feeling very insecure, as if I’d done something wrong and missed an opportunity, as if everyone knew what they wanted to be except me.
When I was a young boy, I honestly thought I could be anything. I’d watch a Rocky film and practice shadow boxing in my room for a week. I’d watch an episode of Colombo and want to be a detective for the following month, but not just any detective though; it had to be an aloof, cigar-smoking one.
I was good at sport too, and at times flirted with wanting to be a runner or a footballer, and probably could have succeeded in some professional sporting endeavour had I not been that boy that was too easily led by the next intriguing hobby, and the next intriguing girl who smiled at me in the playground.
And perhaps, in defence of the career office, this was what he was trying to shield me from. He wanted me to pick something I was good at and go for it, with a clear, structured plan of action. He was an adult. He knew of life’s potential disappointments that lay ahead, and part of his job was to protect me from them.
I was very happy being that way though, and in many ways I’ve not changed much. I enjoyed a wide range of things. I also enjoyed imagining doing new things too. I have always felt the thrill in life’s possibility, and that’s what always lured me to the next challenge. As long as it felt fun and soul rewarding at the time, I was game. I was 14, and fully content in socialising, exercising and being interested in everything that seemed interesting.
Most people struggle to put a label on me because I’m always doing so many different things. I’ve had a ton of hobbies and am always discovering a new interest to explore. I can’t bear the thought of just doing things for the sake of doing them, either out of expectation or complicity. I guess in this way I failed the system.
But it took me many years to realise that the boy being questioned by the career officer, the boy who wanted to be a bunch of cool things but no one thing in particular, was who I am, and that it was fine to be him. ‘Life Entrepreneur’ would be an appropriate label, perhaps.
I have at times in my life tried to force myself down a more “sensible and secure” pathway, but the outcome was always the same: I ended up feeling cornered, uninspired and somewhat depressed. I am strong willed, independent and want to do things my way, which means continuing to use my mind to discover, learn and experience life as much as I can, without being restricted by fear and external expectations.
It took me many years to trust my intuition and follow my passion and creative mind. And when I did so, 9 times out of 10 I ended up in what felt like the right place. So that’s the career path I’m sticking to.
Once I became adept at shaking off fear and attachment to material gain, and fully understood that success in life cannot be measured by prestige or remuneration, I allowed myself to be me – a guy that likes to do lots of different stuff; a jack of all trades and master of none, one might say.
There really isn’t one thing in particular I want to do, and who knows what I’ll be doing next year. One thing I do know is that I want to remain open to new pathways that enthuse me and put a smile on my face.
Just for the record, this isn’t an anti-commitment post, far from it. If you know what career you want at 14, or even 40, then great. Follow what makes you feel alive. But if you don’t know, or want to do something out of the ordinary, or want to suddenly change course at the drop of a hat, then that’s fine too.
Don’t let anyone try forcing your hand. Go at your own pace, with your intuition radar switched on, your mind fully open and your awareness in the now.