I’m 23 and a fresh university graduate. Naturally, the question I’m constantly being asked by parents and frankly anyone who is in my parent’s age range is “what’s the plan? Where do you want to end up in your career?”
This isn’t a question that only arises once you’ve finished university. We’re practically asked it at every moment of our young adult lives, starting from the day we enter the school system. We define ourselves by “who we want to be when we grow up”, by a career path that suits our talents and personality.
There has always been emphasis on having a plan – a linear, logical, and stable trajectory. You enter university for a specific subject; you get a graduate job and work your way up in the field to your ‘dream’ position. Parents and adults love when you have a plan. They love when you can answer that question with details and a sense of certainty.
The first job I remember wanting to be “when I grow up” was a magazine editor. I didn’t know exactly what that would entail, but I knew I wanted to write. My first distinct memory of thinking I might make a good writer was in third grade, where we had to write a descriptive story of a pirate (I forget the context why we were writing about pirates, but I suppose in primary school you don’t need one).
I enjoyed the process of crafting the piece. By ‘crafting’ at age 9, it was more like an unencumbered stream-of-consciousness free-flow, before the school system shaped my creativity. I received the highest mark in the class, and the teacher read it out loud in front of everyone else. Cool, teachers think I’m a good writer so that’s what I should pursue.
We often go in the direction of what we’ve been praised at our whole lives. Whether we like it because we actually do like it, or whether we only think so because we’re good at it doesn’t really matter.
I did end up studying media and communications at university, which ironically taught me more life skills then it did about media. My personal opinion is that art degrees are mostly about learning to critically think, research and write a good essay, plus time management skills and self-discipline. I don’t think it’s waste of time if you only end up learning these things.
Ironically, my favourite subjects I did at university weren’t even about media but the elective subjects I did on exchange. A sociology subject on ‘Sex Work in the Times of Anti-Trafficking’ taught me about the problems with moralizing sex work rather than advocating for their working rights. An anthropology subject which discussed the problems of the 21st century was taught by my favourite professor of all time, who I likened to a crazy Greek philosopher (there were no PowerPoints and we weren’t allowed laptops – instead he wrote with chalk in barely legible handwriting on a blackboard).
When asked throughout my studies what I wanted to do when I finished, I had a few prepared answers. I would say I’m thinking about entering PR, because I enjoyed that subject and had done a few internships in that area. I would talk about being a communications officer in government, because that’s what my mum said she thought I’d be good at. I would say I liked writing and wanted to enter the publishing industry, because it’s what I’ve been saying my entire life.
The truth is, I didn’t really believe in any of those answers. I said them because I thought it would make others feel comfortable; I wanted to appear like I knew what I was doing. I’ve noticed what makes others deeply uncomfortable is when you admit you don’t have a plan and have no idea of what you’re doing. I think the lie of adulthood is that you’ll eventually reach a day and suddenly have that answer.
Defining myself by a plan feels limiting. I think it ignores the fact that life is probably going to take me in many different directions and I don’t have clear-cut control of where I end up. Having the ‘five year plan’ or specific end-goal is really an illusion of certainty. Life is incredibly uncertain. It only took a pandemic to remind us of that.
For me, being present and following what I enjoy in the moment is more important. I think by pursuing what feels good right now is what leads you to your purpose. All I have to do is keep following the crumbs of where I find joy day-by-day, and over time my career unfolds. I don’t know where I want to be, because I don’t believe I’ll know until I get there. And the only way to get there is by being present and doing what I love right now.
We value people who have a plan but I think those who say they don’t have one are far more courageous. I’m not perfect, but I keep practicing holding my ground in response to being asked this question. With certainty I tell them I’m uncertain. The answer is, “No, I don’t have a plan.”
image: McCall Olsen