When I Grow Up

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Whenever I talk to a good friend of mine – less frequently these days, and more often on Skype – he always asks me where I see myself in five years.

He smiles, because he knows I hate that question.

The thing is, the topic of ‘when I grow up’ has always been something that, despite being placed in the far future, takes up a lot of space in my present-day mind. In university, I ping-ponged between degrees and possible lifestyles on a daily basis. One day I was pulled towards investigative journalism; the next, I was scrolling through neuroscience programs online. I’d draw up these fantasies of what my life would look like if I was chasing stories around a city or mapping the minds of sociopaths, trying to fit myself into a predestined box. What would make me happy? What would make me feel important, successful? When I didn’t like the nuances of one profession, I started the never-ending chase of another.

I recently stumbled across an Alice Walker quote that goes, ‘Look closely at the present you are constructing. It should look like the future you are dreaming.’ While this is a motivating message – a reminder to work towards your goals – I still tripped over it. When I was cycling through my laundry lists of impressive careers in university, I followed Walker’s advice: I took the internships; I put in the hours of studying; I put myself through the research. But I never truly enjoyed those moments, even though I tried to convince myself otherwise. ‘Oh look, this fact about the corpus callosum is interesting… that must mean I love everything related to neuroscience!’ 

Alice Walker is right. Your present should look like the future you’re dreaming. But the problem I ran circles around – stupidly! for ages!! – was this: if your present sucks, the future likely will too. And what happens when you let go of those possible daydreams you made yourself fit into? What if you don’t have an imagined future at all, what if you’re found grasping at straws?

It gets a lot simpler if you just look to what you live for everyday. No matter what profession I had declared for my future during any given semester, I always procrastinated the same way. I found myself a nook and I wrote. My brother imagines the physics of impossible scenarios on his Skytrain rides. My friend can read mind-numbing facts about rocks for days. Other people like decorating their houses or watching kids learn or just playing with blood and guts (here’s to hoping they go into medicine, not the other way).

So really, what it comes down to isn’t figuring out “what you want to do” – it’s figuring out who you are.

As Hunter S. Thompson once told a friend asking for career guidance:

Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors—but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires—including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

 

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