Monday, May 16, 2016

to be or not to be

I've been wanting to get around to writing this for way too long now, and I guess the amount of stuff I have to do has finally pushed me to write it.

I have spent a fair amount of thinking--I think perhaps more than most do--about being.  A lot of who we are as individuals seems to be defined by what we do.  We seem to derive a large amount of information from these little facts. I can introduce myself as an engineer, and you will immediately have very different ideas about me than if I were to present myself as a doctor, a photographer, an international travel agent, a nun, a parent, or a clinical parakeet whisperer.  All of these assumptions and how you would then interact with me are defined by so little information as a simplified explanation of what I do.

Of course, in many ways, doing something has a lasting change on how we think and act and see the world.  Our efforts and our experiences can wire our brains and create habits of reacting to the world in certain ways, and for this the simplification of one's occupation can actually be quite informative.  Telling you that I'm an engineer might make you think that I am analytical and precise.  Presenting myself as a writer can give me a more creative flair, while introducing myself as a religious leader might lead you to take me more seriously--or just ignore me entirely.  These occupational identities consistently provide society with a quick judgment on how important they think someone is, what kind of person they might be, and how they plan on interacting with them.

Although there seems to be an incredible amount of importance assigned to this bit of information, it might not be the best drive for decision-making.  These decisions can range from the interactions of an individual with new people, to the expectations that people around them have of them, to the way that they think of themselves.

This system of defining labels for who you are based on what you do has its benefits, but I found a different perspective quite a while ago that gives somewhat of a guide in navigating who to "be" in the future:

"Don't ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, but what problems do they want to solve. This changes the conversation from 'Who do I want to work for?' to 'What do I need to learn to be able to do that?' "

                 -Jaime Casap, Google Global Education Specialist

This problem-solving perspective resonates with me because it really captures the dream of changing the world, at least in some small way.  It also builds the need for the development of life skills rather than just a preparation for an occupation.  And it helps us to look outside of our own problems and see larger systems at work that we can affect in order to do good for ourselves and for others.  That sounds like much more than a career.  It builds on an underlying passion.

One of the most excellent aspects of this approach is that there are many different approaches one can take to solving problems.

From a career-driven perspective, lot of approaches dictate that there is some ideal path to take that will help you become a physician or a journalist or a heliophysicist.  As life usually turns out, though, those paths get interrupted by life, and the fact that people are individuals.  You can ask a lot of people what it took for them to get where they are right now, and it is not uncommon that their story includes an unexpected shift in the path they had put themselves on.  For example, I worked with a nuclear engineer whose undergraduate degree was in history.  Things certainly changed around there.

With a goal of solving problems in mind, it opens up the career path to a broader perspective.  It reverses statements like, "You want to study math? Well, with a math degree, you can become a statistician or an actuary or work with the census or teach or convert to engineering..." to statements like, "You want to solve energy problems?  Well you can do that through research and development or public policy or by starting an energy business... either way, you'll definitely want to understand some chemistry and physics, a bit of math, you'll need to know how to write, and you should understand how to process demographic information..."

There is still a lot of practical value to career paths and having resources like that to help navigate the questions of planning for the future and figuring out what to do.  But with regard to figuring out what to do, I think it holds a lot more promise when we ask ourselves what we want to be involved in and where we want to help, rather than simply what we want to be.