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Career Column: Asking with the right questions

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I recently discussed with a colleague ways of helping kids choose college and career paths. She was interested in exploring ways to help her adolescent children figure out what they want to be when they grow up. It dawned on me that we were asking the wrong question. After considering our respective career paths, we decided neither of us grew up to be what we meant to be (though I argue there’s still time). This should have been a disappointing realization, but we are both decidedly happy with our careers thus far. If we are happy not being what we planned to be, maybe we shouldn’t be asking what others want to be. 

Working in higher education, I’ve seen significant change in practice and principle. Despite whatever the prevailing dogma of the time may be, students who benefit most from the college experience enjoy learning. In my current position, it would be easy to fall in line and recommend only majors supporting in demand jobs. However, what is good for the market today may not be sustainable in future economies. In addition to having limited insight about future success, most of us struggle to delay gratification to the extent necessary to complete programs we don’t enjoy. Instead of looking at what we might like to be in five years, we should focus on exploring our passions. I’ve always recommended students take at least one class they will actually enjoy every semester or quarter. Loving at least one class will make college seem more manageable and increase the desire to attend class. When considering college and majors, the right question is “what do you love learning about?”

Even for those of us who choose majors early, our career paths are likely to take unexpected detours. As we grow throughout life, we will discover new passions, while others fade. What is important to me now may not rank so high on my list of priorities in another 10 years. Instead, embracing new opportunity and discovering new interests will contribute more greatly to our satisfaction than desperately hanging on to our youthful intentions. Success is far more dependent on  lifestyle than title. Don’t worry about what you want to be; focus on the type of activities you enjoy, the type that give you a sense of purpose and provide opportunity to express your creativity. Consider the types of environments that help you feel comfortable and the types of interactions that help you feel like you belong. Ask yourself frequently who you want to be and work continuously to achieve that goal. You’ll find career satisfaction a natural result, even though it doesn’t follow a direct route.

Stephanie McWilliams is Director of Career Services at Charter College, Fife Campus. She can be reached at (253)252-4232 or