Throughout childhood, I had career phases. I remember wanting to be a paleontologist and checking out every book in the elementary school library on dinosaurs. Then there was the archaeologist phase, which had no small relationship to my adoration of Indiana Jones. Then I wanted to be an astronaut… but then was frustrated by my somewhat less than ideal physical condition when I learned about the requirements of astronauts. Then I wanted to be a lawyer because I believed in justice. At age 15, I had a brief moment of clarity in which I realized I should be a rabbi, but that didn’t last very long. I spent my last year-and-a-half of high school with the powerful ambition of becoming Secretary of State and solving the Arab-Israeli crisis. I only applied to universities with highly ranked international relations programs.
When I got to college, I almost immediately changed my major to Cinema-Television Critical Studies. I am embarrassed to admit that I never even took an international relations class–at the risk of offending my readers, the IR students at my alma mater seemed mostly self-important blowhards whose company I simply did not enjoy. I switched majors largely based on which class I enjoyed most and with which people I wanted to spend the most time. By the time I was finishing up college, I was trying to decide between graduate school in film and rabbinical school. I finally decided that I would rather spend time delving into meaningful, holy texts and teaching them to people who found them relevant face-to-face rather than delving into films, analyzing them in papers very few people read and fewer people found meaningful.
I won’t even begin to tell you the convoluted process by which I ended up being precisely the kind of rabbi I am today–one who teaches (mostly kids these days) and writes (in small quantities and for little to no remuneration).
From ages 11 to 17, few people engaged me in anything remotely like vocational training or exploration any deeper than asking “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My Biology II professor (Mr. Black) was very disappointed that I was too squeamish to become a doctor. The local journalist who interviewed me for Georgetown was convinced that I would become a writer, despite my proclaimed aspirations. Even in film school, people seemed very enthusiastic about my academic work, but no one took me under their wing and helped me turn my abilities into a concrete career goal. My academic advisor pretty much did nothing more than help me choose classes. The only people who mentored me were the wonderful staff at USC Hillel, specifically the rabbi and the caterer. Until I happened upon a summer job (which turned into something more substantive) working with two women rabbis working on a book of feminist biblical commentary (Lifecycles II), I had no idea how to merge my love of critical thought with my Jewish practical skills and interests.
My sister says that part of the problem is that I was in the very tightly scheduled International Baccalaureate program–where the only real choice of classes I had was language (French or Spanish) and which level II science to take. I did take a personality test (Myers-Briggs) which suggested potential careers, but no one told me what those careers involved–what types of skills they used or activities they engaged in on a daily basis. I took a few weeks each of typing and woodshop in the seventh grade.I never took art or journalism, engineering or cooking. I agree with my sister’s point; that type of overt and overwhelming focus on academics was part of the problem. It was as if the most gifted students were somehow supposed to know their own life path without a map or guide.
I know that schools today are very different from when I was enrolled. However, I get a sense that many schools are no different in that there is no opportunity for students to understand just how many different types of jobs it takes to keep a society running, each of which has value and one or more of which may be for them. I envision some sort of class which allows high schoolers to grasp the variety of fields and careers available to them, what those jobs do, and how to prepare for them.
I want to know how other people chose their jobs or careers. Any one else fumble along as I did?