5 March 2020
When I was little, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I practiced on my stuffed animals, making casts out of toilet paper and scrawling “prescriptions” in my notebook complete with second-grade misspellings. I made up for my own lack of a pet in enthusiasm; I asked to play with any and every dog I saw, dreaming of the day I might be their doctor.
Some people never lose their dedication to their childhood dreams. Lindsey Horan, for instance, said in an interview with CBS that she had dreamed of playing soccer in the World Cup since her childhood–this summer, as a member of the US Women’s National Team, claimed gold.
However, for every kid who dreams of winning the World Cup, becoming President, or going to outer space, there are thousands who end up happily doing something else. And even though I still love petting dogs, I don’t want to be a veterinarian anymore. I think that’s normal–most people’s interests have changed since their second grade years, and mine are no exception. Now that we are high schoolers, though, it can feel like we are supposed to know exactly what we want to do with our lives, and I sometimes find myself missing my second-grade certainty.
While you might think this classic adolescent indecision runs rampant in high schools, it is also pretty common to find students who have mapped out their future and who are pursuing it at full speed. Sophomore Alystica Woodworth, for example, knows that she wants to become a nurse in the military because she likes helping people, and “being a nurse [means] you get to help people and fix them so that they can be happy again,” she said.
Although I admire the planning and dedication that students like Woodworth have surrounding their future, I also think it is perfectly okay to not know exactly what you want to be when you grow up.
For starters, we don’t have to be just one thing. The “new normal” is that millennials change jobs five times in their first ten years out of college, according to CNN. Intern Mentor teacher Ms. Lynette Burns, for example, worked in customer service, marketing, and then consulting before she became a teacher. Even then, she first taught Career and Research Development, Family and Consumer Science, and Culinary Arts before her current role teaching Independent Research and Intern Mentor.
Ms. Jeanette Bonomo-Thomas also followed a unique path to becoming a teacher. After taking six science classes in high school, she said she applied to college “as a biochemistry major because I thought I wanted to be a pharmacist…and I ended up becoming an English teacher.” She continued, saying “I’m still now, as a 33 almost 34 year-old person, finding out about careers that people have, that I think ‘wow, I didn’t even know that that was ever an option.’”
Ms. Bonomo brings up an interesting point: how are we supposed to know what we want to be when we grow up if we don’t even know all the options? In the words of Ms. Burns, “no high school student says ‘I want to be an actuary’ or ‘I want to be an epidemiologist.’ They don’t know about those fields…they just have to know ‘these are some things I like that I want to learn more about’ and allow the path to be more loosely defined.”
Despite this truth, we do have to make some decisions now that will impact our future. However, it’s important to keep in mind that they don’t have to decide the course of our lives. In his 2019 Teacher of the Year graduation speech, Mr. Thomas Stuppy spoke about the merits of changing your mind, saying “if you don’t like the road you’re on, if you don’t like the person you’re becoming, you can change…two roads may diverge in a yellow wood, but if you change your mind about where you’re headed you can always change the path you’re on.”
Even choices that seem particularly permanent can turn out to be more fluid. Navigating the college application process requires many scary choices, including which schools to apply to, and eventually, which one to choose–but even these choices can be reevaluated if necessary. If you find yourself in a college that just doesn’t fit, transfering is always an option. Furthermore, even though the drop-down menu of intended majors on the Common App may look intimidating, many colleges don’t require that you officially declare a major until sophomore year, and even then, 30% of undergraduate college students change their major at least once, according to the US Department of Education.
For example, English teacher Mr. Vennard waited until the beginning of his junior year to choose a major at the University of Maryland. “I recognized that even though I thought in my head I wanted to be an oceanographer or marine biologist for no good reason…my transcript dictated that I loved writing and those were the classes that I kept taking over and over,” he said. Mr. Vennard decided to declare a major that aligned with those passions, saying “I declared English, and I let my coursework determine my major, which later determined my profession to be a teacher,” adding that “it turned out great because I really love teaching.”
Guidance Counselor Ms. Yvonne Rogers echoed this sentiment, saying “I think highschoolers need to know that they should not stress about making sure they know exactly what they want to do when they’re getting ready to go to college.” She added that “it’s good to start exploring, but it’s not necessarily important that you definitely know what you are going to do in highschool.”
This explorative approach also makes sense from a neurological standpoint. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, our brains are not fully developed until we are around 25, which is when we become really proficient at rational decision making. So if you don’t know exactly what you want to do with the rest of your life, don’t feel bad: right now, our brains are literally still building themselves and learning how to best make big decisions.
This brain-building means that our brains are working on deciding which connections are important, according to Dr. Jay Giedd from the National Institute of Mental Health in an interview with PBS. Through a process called synaptic pruning, we will start to lose the brain connections that we don’t use. As a result, adolescence is an especially important time to explore and try new things, so that our brain connections can reflect our passions. In this way, our brains being under construction is a strength: right now we have the possibility to build our brains in whichever direction we wish.
In the meantime, let’s try to take Ms. Burns’s advice to “know who you are and what you love and know your strengths,” but to not worry too much about the details. “Sometimes those things just take time for you to figure out and see where your interests intersect.”
In summary, it is completely okay to be unsure about your aspirations. If you are, you’re in good company. John Green, for example, wasn’t the best student in high school, but he went on to become the New York Times bestselling author of The Fault in Our Stars, among other accomplishments. In a Youtube video he made in 2015, he reflected on his experiences. “High school is not destiny,” he said. “It’s part of life, but I feel like when you’re in high school people act like it’s the most important thing you’ll ever do and like the course of your life is being decided. But at least so far as I can tell, the course of your life isn’t decided, ever.” In the words of Mr. Stuppy, “you can be anything.”