I decided to become a pediatrician when I was 5-years-old. Along the way, many adults would say things to me like “you know that takes many years of school” or “what’s your back-up plan” that presumed I wouldn’t accomplish my goal, either because I was too naive or lazy to put forth the effort needed. Even my high school guidance counselor and college dean encouraged me to be practical in terms of entertaining alternative options. Although I knew that becoming a doctor would not be easy and that there would be hurdles along the way (including standardized test after test), I was offended by each of these doubting adults. Putting my energy into developing alternative plans felt like a waste of energy that could be better spent on meeting my goals. But, I heeded their warnings and entertained alternative career ideas, creating a short list of professions that I could see myself doing outside of medicine. Mostly though, I used their hesitancy to motivate myself and fuel my determination whenever I reached one of the challenges along the way.
I routinely ask children in my clinic about their career aspirations. Most often, I am told that they want to be in the NFL, NBA, or the next Beyonce. While I know that the odds of them being drafted to the NFL are poor (0.2%) , I never tell them that it won’t happen. Instead, I stress that even professional athletes need an alternative plan because they can’t play forever. “So when you retire at age 32, what are you going to do?” I often ask. This is when I typically get a more realistic answer of business, journalism, or engineering. While I want them to be prepared for not reaching the NFL, I don’t think that it hurts to aim for it. Becoming a professional athlete, much like becoming a doctor, takes a strong sense of determination, a commitment to education, and an unwavering passion. Whether or not they reach this goal, the lessons they learn along the way will benefit them in whatever career they choose.
While serious career discussions are usually focused on the pre-teens and teens, it is a question that I really enjoy asking preschoolers as well. 3- and 4-year-olds have such an amazing imagination that the career possibilities are endless and creative! So after hearing all sorts of responses from patients, I decided to ask my 3-year-old son and see if he had any ideas yet. Based on his current interests, I expected him to say a fireman or garbage man. Whenever he sees trucks he tells me “I’m going to drive that when I get bigger,” so a truck driver would also have made sense. Before knowing his response, I vowed I would never discourage him and would do whatever I could to help him succeed. Then I heard his response and decided that I should also allow him to be flexible to change his mind along the way!
“N, what do you want to be when you grow up?’