At what age is it ‘acceptable’ to start thinking about your career?
I recently had the chance to really ponder about this question after seeing this really questionable tweet online. He’s a distant friend, and I know he does not have a terrible moral compass or a superiority complex. In fact, we talked fairly often back in the day, but still, I felt the need to stand up for the person he was referring to, even though I have no idea who she is, and at the same time, express my thoughts on this whole “you’re too young to think about your career” mindset.
For context, the person who posted the first comment is currently in Secondary Four, while my friend who posted the second comment has recently graduated from Secondary School. In short, both of them are about 15-16 year-olds.
Besides the totally rude and uncalled-for comment, what irked me the most was this particular line: “The point is, this should not be a very big concern at this stage”.
That is the problem. It should be a big concern at this stage.
Let me take it one step further, and say that
If you have no idea what you want to do before 18, you’re screwed.
Woah woah woah, at least hear me out first.
You Just Need An Interest
It’s perfectly fine if that “idea” is something you’re not certain of. If you have anything that you’re remotely interested in trying out, you’re okay, but for those who have none, it just has to be something you’re interested in at this very point in time. Everybody has something they are interested in. It isn’t even a point of contention; it’s a fact. Period. And don’t worry if your interest doesn’t sound like something you could make a career out of. When I was in Secondary Two, I liked reading Wikipedia and was interested in how the website worked. So what did I do? I charged people money to help them place their company/individual profiles onto Wikipedia. About two years ago, I was interested in an online fantasy game I was playing, so I contacted an online magazine and got paid to write articles about it on their website.
Most of the people (of my generation) I’ve interacted with have this misconception that you only get one shot at this whole career thing, and you die-die have to get it right the first time round. As a result, they become afraid of trying and adverse to failure. I often hear people expressing their doubts and the most common variant is “oh, what if it doesn’t work out for me? I would have wasted so much time. Wouldn’t it be better if I waited till I figured it out?”
It’s definitely a valid concern and sentiment shared by many, but why not look at it the other way? Why not see it as, “I found a job that doesn’t work for me”. A negative result isn’t always a bad thing. Didn’t our teachers always talk to us about the process of elimination? When attempting multiple choice questions, how do we usually end up with the correct answers? We eliminated the options we know were wrong. Likewise in life, to end up with your “correct choice”, you got to strike off what doesn’t work for you.
I was a marketing intern back in Secondary Three, and about a year or two ago, I decided to try and become one of those IT-Show sales promoters. While both didn’t yield particularly desirable results, I gained a better understanding of my weaknesses, knew what jobs to avoid, and where I should place my focus on in the future.
The point is, you need to be actively exploring the things you’re interested in so as to figure out what doesn’t work for you. Maybe I’m a just a work-obsessed person who gets his energy from working, but in my opinion, you’re only so young and ‘restless’ for this long. It’ll be a tragic waste and pity if you don’t spend this period discovering the unknown and, contextually-speaking, making a fool out of yourself.
It’s Alright To Pursue Multiple Careers
Are they wrong to think that way, though? Certainly not, for society has conditioned us to feel that we only have one true calling, and that we have to constantly wrack our brains to figure out that job we were ‘destined’ to do. To a certain extent, the idea of having only one job, of leading a narrowly-focused life, have been greatly romanticised, and this results in entirely unnecessary pressure. Instead of thinking, “how many ways can I contribute to society with my skills?”, people are now anxiously wondering, “which skill should I pick to contribute to society?”
It is perfectly okay to embark on multiple ‘careers’. One does not have to restrict themselves and choose only one particular area to focus on. For example, if you’re good at calligraphy, cooking, and marketing, why not do all three? There’s no need to restrict yourself to just one career option.
No wonder people are not inclined to figure out what they are, at the very minimum, interested in, because we have all made the risk for exploration higher than it actually is for absolutely no reason!
Some people are naturally wired to be curious in a broad range of subjects, and there is nothing positive stemming from having them specialise in only one of those areas. Career coach Emilie Wapnick spoke at length about this issue at TEDx Bend, and how restricting yourself will only make you sad and miserable (trust me, I’ve been there).
Dispelling The Myths
“But I have no time to explore! It’s Secondary Four! There’s the O-Levels!” That is simply just an overused excuse to justify your lack of courage.
I’m not trying to generalise, but contrary to popular belief, Secondary Four is the optimal time for exploration. You were probably too young and immature in Secondary One and Two, and busy with love, being rebellious, and struggling with dropping grades in Secondary Three. Secondary Four is the year where most can safely say they have matured to a reasonable extent. You understand things better, your attitude might have improved, and you’re not as fickle as before etc.
Also, by the time your prelims arrive, you have already done the same ‘exact’ thing at least 12 times leading up to that. All your level tests, common tests, CAs, SAs, and EOYs, coupled with the fact that Secondary Four is the least content-heavy year by miles (at least for me), your senior year will present many opportunities for exploration, and it would be so, so foolish if you spent all your time on studying.
Now, one might say, “you can afford to do that only because you were good at your academics”. Err, no? Who said I was good in my academics? I was an ‘at-risk’ student, failed half of my subjects and got 38 for my L1R5 when I ended Secondary Three. It’s not like I had many qualifications to help me either. When I first started out, all I had was my PSLE certificate. Even now, I’m still some time away from attaining my first diploma. Besides, I was always playing soccer and at odds with the discipline committee. I’m sure you could paint a picture of how I was back then.
If there was one thing I constantly disagreed with my former teachers, it was the fact that they were always asking me to study every single subject, and to spend whatever free time I had studying. I think it’s absolutely bonkers. For one, our health should be placed on a higher pedestal. Secondly, learning completely irrelevant subjects (like Additional Mathematics, which one of my Math relief teachers used to tell me “the only time you need A-Math in the future, is if you become an A-Math teacher”) that you’re never going to touch again is not how you should be spending your precious little time. I just feel that it’s sad, yet ironic, that we could have spent this time exploring the things we will actually require in the future.
A lot of my friends have this incorrect notion that I had already known what I wanted to do in life. I would always hear, “it’s easy for you to say such stuff because you have already found your passion. The rest of us have not”. That is just wrong. Graphic design and filmmaking were merely things I was interested in at that given point in time. I have no clue I was going to be doing this for the long haul. As I suggested countless times before, all I did was to locate the very thing I was interested in, explored that area, and unlike some of my other jobs, it turned out to be something that worked for me. If I were to be all apprehensive and wonder if both were the right jobs for me, I wouldn’t have went forth and discovered that hey, those were indeed my passions!
Take Advantage of Your Youth
I think the phrase “it’s never too late to pursue your dream” is bullshit. Not because you are unwilling, but circumstances will prevent you from doing so. Think about the kind of responsibilities you need to shoulder going into adulthood. Rent, utilities, transport, meals, family, expenses etc. In my five years of freelancing since I was 13, I have deviated from graphic design to writing, sales, photography, videography, marketing, and editing. Do you think I would have the opportunity and privilege to explore this entire ‘spectrum’ if I went down the JC route (contextually-speaking; not that there’s anything wrong with JC) and popped back into society after my National Service? No, because it would be too bloody expensive and I can’t risk it.
People are less forgiving when you’re an adult as well. When I was just starting out as a presentation designer, I had a few clients who chose to ‘forget’ about some of the errors I made purely due to my age, complete lack of experience, and absence of education qualifications. Maybe I’m erring on the cynical side a little too much, but do you think people are going to be that forgiving and rational when you enter the workforce as an adult? Who the f*** cares about your lack of experience, honestly? Boo-hoo-hoo, the sun will set and the stars would still rise even if you’re fired.
And what if you succumb to a lack of time and peer judgement, as stupid as that is? I mean, “you can’t possibly be jobless right?” I’m pretty sure “I’m still finding my passion” isn’t a societally-accepted reason to be staying at home, especially in your 20s. As a result, you might be forced to work a potentially boring dead-end job that you do not enjoy, just to ease the pressure from your parents, relatives and friends. What does this mean? You will have even lesser time and opportunities to explore your interests, and the vicious cycle simply continues.
Worse still, how are you going to compete with experienced part-timers who might be more skilled in the area you’re applying for, much less the people from other parts of the world? For the guys especially, we are already two years behind our global counterparts by the time we’re discharged from the military. Comparatively, we will be severely lacking in knowledge, skill sets, and workplace experience. If you don’t factor in the time spent for National Service and make up for lost time right now, then you can’t really blame anyone in the future, can you?
At the end of the day, happiness plays a big part in our lives and is undoubtedly a significant factor in determining our emotional states. In my opinion, most of our happiness is heavily influenced by the people around us and does not really “come from within”, even though that should be the case. Sure, we might ultimately find creative satisfaction in what we do, but we have an unhealthy tendency to compare ourselves to others. Unfortunately, this has become easier with the rise of social media. Imagine a scenario where you are stuck at your desk after a long, tiring meeting. You log onto Facebook, start scrolling thru your feed, and you see all your friends boasting about their latest feats, being successful in their respective fields, and enjoying themselves on exotic vacations. Some of ya’ll may not live for this kind of experiences or materialistic satisfaction (good for you), but for most people, you want to be the one that is free from the workplace and going on those exotic cruises and holidays. It doesn’t have to be a goal, but it works tremendously well as a source of motivation.
Stop Thinking You Have Plenty of Time
It’s a scary and cruelly ironic thing isn’t it? If you fail to explore when you were young, you might actually never find your passion, even though the reason you didn’t explore in the first place, was because you wanted to wait and figure out what you were ‘meant to do’. During this period when you have no urgent obligation to settle down, finish off as many things as time permits you to. Don’t just take it from me. Look at the countless people claiming that hey, there comes a time when it becomes too late. Ask the adults around you. Some of their faces will light up as they describe their passions, before a tinge of sadness creep into their voices and betray the very eyes that were momentarily filled with hope. I’ve seen that look so many times, and it’s just heartbreaking. It’s not that they lack talent – all of them are exceptional at their passions – but there comes a time when it’s just not practical to take that much of a calculated risk anymore.
You might say, hey, look at the people who have succeeded despite not knowing what they want to do before 18. Yes, such examples are aplenty, and I am fully aware of it. But here’s a question for you: Have you also taken a look at the amount of people who did not succeed because they did not know what they wanted to do before 18? For every successful case study, there are hundreds more who have failed. In a way, I think clichés like “it’s never too late to follow your dreams” is nothing more than an over-romanticised idea meant to give people a small glimmer of hope, or in some cases, an excuse to make them feel better about themselves.
Different people interpret “success” differently, but in the current context, success means finding a job that you actually enjoy doing. You might be making millions a year, converting thousands of leads a month, or flying around the world every week for work, but you might still be gravely unfulfilled and unhappy. To attain that invaluable sense of belonging and achievement, you have to first stop kidding yourself, because the only way you’re going to find your purpose in life, is if you take charge of it and actually make an effort to search for it.
I would put the words interest and passion in a similar bracket. If you’re interested in something, all you need is a little time for it to be ‘upgraded’ into a passion. It’s basically just taking it to the next level; we just love to label things, that’s all. As I mentioned earlier, every single living person on this planet has an interest, and it’s really down to whether they let their fears get to them. It doesn’t matter if it works out at the end or not. If it does, excellent. If it doesn’t, that’s equally great as well, for you have found something you know you should avoid in the future. The time, consequences, and not to mention the amount of money you can save at this age when you have minimal financial commitments are too priceless.
Passion is like money. It’s not going to fall from the sky. You have to put in the effort to find it, although it isn’t that hard to get started. Beg, cold call, offer to intern, use your age to your advantage, whatever. Most of the opportunities I got in the earlier stages of my career was purely down to banging people’s doors (metaphorically speaking), casting as wide of a net as possible, and basically saying yes to almost everything that was offered to me. Do you know how I managed to have the opportunity to host my debut solo exhibition back in August 2015? I messaged this hostel chain I stayed in a few months back, coincidentally for a journalism assignment, to see if they were willing to sell my postcard prints, and the very nice folks decided to sponsor their gallery at one of their properties for me. And I didn’t even have to ask. You never know, a simple email might end up giving you one of the greatest highlights of your life.
Does that mean there’s something wrong with people who have part-time jobs (waiters, promoters, assistants etc.)? Errr… no. See, there’s a grave difference between someone who’s working part-time to fund their goals, be it paying for their schools fees, investing in their personal projects, or even supporting their family, and someone who’s working a part-time job with no view of making that job permanent, yet scared shitless to take any plunges because they still haven’t discovered their ‘one true calling’. I admire people who put aside their egos and do the dirty work themselves to support their businesses or side projects. I mean, after all, not everyone will get a “small loan of $1 million dollars”, right?
I think what’s equally as interesting as my friend’s tweet was the replies to it. There is nothing wrong with agreeing with his thoughts, but it is condescending on so many levels to lambaste the girl for expressing her own opinion and thinking about her passion, just because you yourself failed to find yours during Secondary School. It reeks of insecurity, cowardice and truancy of common sense.
And you guys were the fastest to post up #JeSuisCharlie hashtags when the attacks threatened freedom of speech not long ago.
Shame on you.
For all I know, you might not agree with what I’ve written, and that’s alright; we can agree to disagree. But it is not alright to embarrass someone else just for wanting to prepare and get a head start in life. For a young teen to start wondering and making plans for the future, her attitude should be lauded and thoroughly encouraged, not unjustifiably shamed online. After all,
“Darling, she’s only 15 so shut your mouth”.
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