“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I hadn’t thought of that question for a long…..well….very long time. But when I said “Yes” to talking to high school juniors about a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), it screamed back into my mind – along with a tremble.
“A tremble? Really? With this simple question?”, the inner commentator opinioned. “Yes, REALLY!” I snapped back. The sound of my voice startled me back into the moment. “Okay… Okay… Okay,” I murmured, taking a few deep breaths to gather my composure.
I hadn’t expected an internal ruckus over this seemingly simple, ordinary event. “Where in the world did this come from?” I wondered. So, I decided to do some internal investigation work to see what I could discover – for the students and myself.
This nudge was all my mind needed to launch a memory search. I found that when I was in high school, I hated it when someone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Why? Simple. I didn’t have an answer. But not liking a question is different than the heightened visceral reaction of a tremble. So, I went deeper and gave myself time to see what would come, if anything.
A couple of days later when I was walking Dakota (my dog), a memory appeared, not the kind where I remember a specific incident, but rather a memory that revealed how I thought about my life. I saw that somewhere along the way growing up, I got good at figuring out where I was going next – having answers made life feel certain. “I’ve had enough uncertainty,” I had concluded.
How did I create certainty? I did whatever it took to get me to a known, comfortable place. Back then, this was relatively straightforward to do. I studied for tests and good grades. I practiced piano, cleaned my room when necessary, and did my best to stay within the bounds of “being considerate” to others.
“What did I want to be when I grew up?” was different. It was a pivotal question, taking me into a future – I place I knew that was fully unknown. “Goodness,” I thought, “I have enough issues being a high school teenager, much less having the ability to consider where I will go, or what I will do.” Tremble, indeed. The seemingly simple “I don’t know” had rocketed itself into the stratosphere of uncertainty.
A week later, I began my talk to the students with a question, a different one than I was asked: “How can you plan a future that does not yet exist?” They looked puzzled, but I was undaunted and continued. “I couldn’t, in fact, I had no idea. But what I could do was know what I liked and what I was good at; what I was curious about and what might challenge me.
“Math, was my answer. From where I stood, it seemed to have the potential of opening a whole new, adventurous world. In terms of where, my choice was Purdue. It was and is a great school, it was more diverse, meaning there were boys there, and was a lot bigger than my small all-girls high school.
“What happened? The future took care of itself. Having been accepted into the Math Honors program, I was enrolled in Honors Math classes that took advantage of and integrated the emerging field of Computer Science. Where my friends used slide rules, I was solving Calculus problems writing computer code. Little did I know then that I was on my way to a yet unknown career in technology and innovation.
“My advice? Whatever you know about what you want to do or what you want to study, be open. Let life open possibilities you couldn’t even imagine, waiting for you to discover where you’ll go next.”
For all that seems to change in this fast-paced world, some things don’t change. Yes, we get more experience and knowledge from which to consider today’s choices; but irrespective of all these facts, we still cannot plan a future which does not yet exist.
I’m amazed at my teenage-self. I knew then, exactly how to proceed. One step at a time. Trust. Say “Yes” to the doors that open. See what I like, what doesn’t fit. Learn. Trust again.
I am grateful to have been with the students and I am even more grateful for what I learned. Now, I ask myself a new question. “Am I ready, willing, able to be here today, to stand with grace facing an uncertain future, to feel the paradox of vulnerability and trust all in the same breath?” I respond “yes” when I can. When I can’t, I feel my teenage wisdom’s ability to tremble and keep on moving.
Truth is, I still don’t have a definitive answer to that initial question. So, “How’s it going?” you may ask. Just like then, it’s looking good so far.
Thanks for reading!