Around the time that exam results are released, high school students have this conversation with their parents.
Mom: Love, I’m so proud of you for getting that place to study medicine in Cape Town.
Child: But mom, I told you that I’m going to study acting.
Mom : Acting for who? What is acting? Are you a comedian now?
And so it goes. In a conversation that I had with a mother she admitted that she was resistant to her daughter studying to work in the tourism industry because she did not understand it. She explained how the women of her generation only saw themselves walking in one of two career paths: teaching or nursing.
As African countries gained independence careers that were previously closed doors of opportunity opened up. Parents who could not pursue medicine, law and accounting began to have those dreams for their children. They worked hard to educate and prepare for university where their children would take advantage of the many opportunities they were deprived of.
You feel pressured to choose the path your parents want for you. You are conflicted because you want to honour your parents but you also want to live your own life, not theirs. You feel confused because you suddenly have to make grownup decisions but you still feel like a child.
Four years ago I felt terrified of getting stuck in a career that I hated. I had just finished studying my first degree and had to decide if I was going to pursue a law degree. My dad had told me that he had always wanted to be a lawyer but could not. The truth is that I was pressuring myself. My parents had never tried to force me into a specific path.
I wanted to make them proud, but I also wanted to be happy. I was confused and spent months wrestling with it until I could make sense of the tangle of the fear of failure and the fear of success. I don’t have all the answers but I do have ideas that will change the way you think.
It’s okay not to know what you want to be when you grow up
I used to envy people who said they always knew what work they wanted to do, but then I found out that there are far more people who can’t decide if they want to be biologist or a belly dancer. Realising this freed me. My uncertainty did not make me a failure.
Think of your degree as an investment in yourself
Billionaire investor Warren Buffet said, ‘Invest in yourself as much as you can, you are your own biggest asset by far.’ If you’re a student, stop thinking of university as a necessary evil on the path to making money, think of it as an investment in yourself. University will give you more than a degree. It shapes your worldview, it puts in place the foundations that you will build your adult life on.
Do your research
Never, ever make a career choice on a whim. Find out as much as you can about your options and make an informed decision. Google is helpful and websites like Forbes are a great resource, but talking to a person slightly ahead of you on the path you are considering is by far the best way to get the lowdown on any career.
Honour your parents
Honour and obedience are not the same thing. To honour your parents means to consider them better than you, to value and respect them. Instead of dismissing their advice as old-fashioned or oppressive, listen and consider it as valuable. Use the language of respect, don’t throw a tantrum because they disagree. Engage them in conversation, but remember that it is your decision to make and not theirs.
Understand that it’s not about what job you are doing but about the person you are becoming
Four years ago I chose to read for a law degree even though I didn’t feel certain that I wanted to be a lawyer. I realised that my career is not my identity, it’s not who I am. Rather, it’s a channel through which I can express who I am. If you spend your life chasing job titles and employee of the year awards, you are going to be an empty shell at the end of your life.
Ultimately the most important question you must ask yourself is: Who do I want to be when I grow up?