Sunday, February 28, 2010

That Million Dollar Question

What do you want to be when you grow up?

As a child, everyone has an answer to this seemingly simple question: a fireman, a doctor, a painter, a movie star, or in my case an Olympic figure skater. 

As a teenager, you realize your childhood response was anywhere from silly to unlikely to absurdly ridiculous. If I remember correctly, one of my younger sisters wanted to be a "ballerina veterinarian" when she was younger. Last time I checked, there wasn't much demand for these kinds of multi-talented professionals in the workforce, although who knows what kind of jobs might be created with the newest jobs bill. 

And then you get to college and the question becomes something your parents are paying you to find the answer to, and fast. I can't tell you how many times I've answered this question, or struggled to answer this question in the last 3 years, and more specifically the last two months I've spent here in Washington. I'm not sure if I find myself confronting this question at an unusually high frequency because complete strangers are legitimately interested in my life, or because this question has somehow become the one and only socially acceptable ice-breaker when interacting with a college student, but I do know that the more I'm forced to answer it, the more frustrated I become with myself and my inability to do so. 

Now I would consider myself far more apt to answer this question than a lot of my peers. I didn't come into college "undecided" on a major, and though I did switch out a musical theater minor sophomore year for a double major in political science, I have felt pretty sure since day one that broadcast journalism was the right college major choice for me. The internships, the extracurriculars, the classes, the trips, pretty much everything I have done in the last few years has solidified this, as well as developed and strengthened my interest in politics. At 20 years old, I've done more than most to find out what I like and what I don't. But when it comes to supplying that simple answer to the million dollar question that everyone is looking for, I just can't do it. In fact, from here on out, I refuse to do it. 

Isn't it enough to know what my interests are and be open-minded to the prospect of any career that marries those interests, the more creatively the better? I think we do ourselves a disservice by forcing ourselves to answer the million dollar question with a firm, unequivocal answer. The truth is, we are living in one of the most exciting periods in history where careers are transitioning and adapting every day to utilize new technologies and innovations, and meet the ever-changing demands of our increasingly diverse society. A huge percentage of Americans are working in jobs today that didn't even exist, or have a name when those individuals were in college and trying to answer the million dollar question. 

Journalism is one of these fields that's currently undergoing a huge transition phase. Everyone who complains about the demise of journalism and laments the extinction of the newspaper and bemoans the prevalence of the web and new media replacing the nightly news broadcast; these are the people who had simple and firm answers to the million dollar question. Change is happening, progress is the future, and to anyone who doesn't embrace it and jump along for the ride, I thank you, because I'll have your job one day.  

Furthermore, a lifetime is a really really long time. My mother has transitioned careers several times already in her life, and she jokes that she's still trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up. Many studies have shown that my generation will have more career changes in our lifetimes than any previous generation. It's now not only feasible, but likely that what we start out doing won't be the career we'll have for the rest of our lives, or for the rest of our twenties. 

And finally, life is unpredictable. Jenny Sanford probably had no idea she'd become the First Lady of South Carolina by ways of marrying a man who'd later become the Governor. And she probably had even less of an inclination that she'd write a book about her husband's affair that blew up in the media and captivated the country. I'm fairly certain she didn't ever answer 'Novelist' when asked the million dollar question. But things like that happen, life happens. The best opportunities in life are the ones you can't foresee, plan, or answer in a question, so why limit myself?

From now on when people ask me what I want to be, I plan to respond, "Successful and Happy"

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