When we were children, adults used to ask us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We would inevitably reply with answers like, “A doctor! An astronaut! A rock star!” Those adults would then say to us, “Great! Remember, you can be anything you want to be. Just follow your dreams.”
We were fragile then and needed all the encouragement we could get. Now older, we are hardened enough to finally face the truth: You can’t be anything you want to be, but you’ve got to be something.
I am awakening to this cruel reality, as are the rest of my friends who are graduating in May. Among everyone I see at career fairs, there is an ever-present, but rarely talked about, aura of unhappiness. We are all bracing ourselves for dissatisfaction and disappointment as we grovel for jobs that we know most likely will have nothing to do with our long-treasured childhood dreams.
We could blame the economy, society or the government for not providing enough dream jobs, but that would be silly. I think the problem lies in our dreams themselves.
Since childhood, each of us has been conditioned to believe that he or she is the most important part of his or her future. The focus has always been on us – on our talents, dreams and pleasures. We have, for the most part, not been conditioned to consider the ways our work might help improve our community, our country or our world. These things have been, at best, a secondary concern.
But there are many more jobs that will give us a chance to improve the world than there are jobs that will give us a chance to fulfill our self-centered dream. After all, there are only a limited amount of positions available to the person who has always wanted to be a CEO, but there are plenty of positions available to the person who values the satisfaction he gets from helping to improve the world.
With this in mind, I think that we could save future generations a lot of grief by instead of asking our children what they want to be when they grow up, we ask them, “What do you want to do for the world when you grow up?” If that question begins running through their imaginations when they are little, they will be much more likely, when they reach job-seeking age, to realize that self-satisfaction is not the primary goal.
They will also be more likely to seek out and be happy in jobs that, although less than perfect, will give them a chance to realize the dream of improving the world. They may start demanding more jobs in fields that deal with communal, societal and world improvement. And when they get to the age where they have control over how economic resources are apportioned, they may be more likely to create jobs that are centered on world improvement (instead of self-improvement).
It is not too late for our generation to make the switch from self-centered to a world-centered set of goals. Many of us already have. But it is important for us to keep in mind as we attend career fairs, send out resumes and go to job interviews that satisfaction can come from many places. If we can at least get a job that gives us the satisfaction of improving the world, we will create a new social definition of success. But if our job benefits neither ourselves nor the world, then we should keep looking.
Daniel J. Kristie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.