“You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to… If you don’t decide for yourself what you want to get out of life, someone else will probably end up deciding for you.”
I once had a conversation with CARE‘s CEO Helene Gayle over lunch on starting one’s career. I was wearing my best, and only, suit bouncing in my seat with excitement. I had been so excited to ask her questions about her career and on advice for mine that I had forgotten to buy my own lunch, and I worried that my stomach rumbling would distract her from sharing the answers. While most questions were based in practicalities – “What do you think the future of the development organization looks like?” “Which specialization will be in the highest demand for organizations like CARE when I enter the job market in two years?” “Is a PhD necessary for the development field?” “What are your initial impressions of Dr. Shah as Director of USAID?” – the question that really stuck out was the following: “What is your suggestion for individuals who want to pursue a career in international development?” (Probably because I asked it, go figure.)
I thought that her answer would also be grounded in technical solutions – focus on environmental sustainability, connect with public sector corporate social responsibility, get a degree in public policy – but instead, Dr. Gayle suggested this:
“Your life, like your work, must be mission driven, and it shouldn’t matter what field. You have to believe in what you are doing, why you are doing it. And sometimes, it is most important to forsake plans for passionate ideas.”
And as I agonized over cover letters this evening (again) and stressed over the uncertainty of the job search (always), I was reminded of that idea. That my motivation for the work I do everyday, whether it is for classes, for a cover letter, or for that job that maybe, hopefully, one day I will have – it should match the mission of my life. That the pursuit of unexpected and challenging opportunities has completely changed the course of my life, but I have not thus far regretted any diversions from the plan.
I think, maybe, that is part of the problem of my generation. We have been brought up on the idea that planning for university begins in the fourth grade, and it has weakened our ability to accept the wonder of the unexpected in our professional lives. I believe planning is important, don’t get me wrong. In fact I have often envied those that have stuck to a plan they made at age 10 or 12 (I switched between at least 15 career aspirations in those two years). Goal setting, career planning, five and ten-year goals are all integral to maintaining a critical view of our careers, but there seems to be an inability to realistically question these goals. As if it were a sign of weakness or insecurity. It would be weaker, in my opinion, to support a goal if it takes you further from the things you want, mires you in unhappiness or resignation, or creates in you a person you did not want to become. Or worse, someone you hate. Or if a goal transforms itself from your goal into the goal of everyone else around you and becomes what is expected of you. Questions about your goals become inquiries into your life plan’s progress.
Instead of asking young people, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ ask them, ‘Who are you becoming?’ The question is not whether you will be a doctor or a lawyer but what kind of doctor or lawyer you will be.
Constant questioning keeps us from settling, and ensures we discover what the mission of our lives, and therefore our work, really is. Do not what is expected of you, but what encourages you to excel. It can be anything. Or it can be everything. You decide.Disclaimer: Helene Gayle’s quote comes from almost 2-year-old notes, was probably heavily paraphrased in the minutes after this lunch, but is no less inspiring.