When I was in middle school, I thought I wanted to be a politician. I was enamored with Jon Stewart and Michael Moore and I thought that I could change the world through policy change. I even played an online nation-state roleplaying game called NationStates (it’s still online, by the way, with a pretty active community).
Then, in high school, I went to a thing called Boys State. Run by the American Legion, Boys and Girls States are "educational programs of government instruction," a.k.a. government role-play, a.k.a. one very long week of IRL NationStates.
Actual screenshot from the Boys State website.
That was when I learned that you can’t change the world through policy change. Ha! Kidding (?). That was when I learned that I didn’t want to be a politician. Like, at all. Why? What it really boiled down to is that I just don’t have the personality type to succeed in that sort of situation.
By this point in my life, I already knew that I wanted to do something with writing. But my experience at Boys State made me realize that I should stop judging colleges based on their political science programs and instead double-down on English and writing programs.
If I hadn’t been cured of the delusion that I would be an effective politician, I probably wouldn’t have applied to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for Dramatic Writing, and I definitely wouldn’t have had the courage to accept my place there and commit to the idea of "writing" as a career.
I think everyone has an experience like this at some point in their life. My dad had one his freshman year of college. He was enrolled in pre-med classes when he realized that he didn’t want to be a medical doctor. Instead, he focused his energy into becoming a psychologist, a career that he is passionate about to this day. (Becoming a psychologist also led directly to him meeting my mother, so I guess I can thank his freshman year epiphany for my existence.)
As students head back to high school and college this fall, we should all take this opportunity to test-ride our passions and goals. Ask yourself: is this really what I want? For many of us, inertia can carry us into a career or college program that we don’t want. We shouldn’t be afraid to stop that inertia if we need to.
If you’re in high school (or have a kid in high school), I strongly suggest doing some kind of external extracurricular activity in the field that you’re interested in. That means an extracurricular activity that your friends aren’t participating in and that isn’t being run by adults you already know. By placing yourself outside of your comfort zone, you’ll get a new perspective on your passion or hobby. (A lot of extracurricular programs offer financial aid for low-income families, so don’t let cost scare you away from applying.)
College is like one giant extracurricular activity — at least when you’re first starting. But if you’re in college and questioning your career choice, you should look at internships, either at local companies or in other cities. (Some of my friends had their most revealing internship experiences in other cities.) An internship will help you discover whether or not you want to dedicate a good portion of your life to a particular career path.
What about for adults out of college? There’s always grad school. (Only kind of a joke.) There’s also the much cheaper option of adult education. Most colleges will offer some sort of adult education program, and if you live in an urban area there are most likely multiple businesses that will teach you everything from art to cooking to dancing to how to buy foreclosed property. If you’re interested in switching careers, adult education can help you test out a new passion. There are also a multitude of online universities and classes that cover everything from coding to nursing.
No matter what stage of life you’re in, it’s never too late to test both old and new passions, hobbies, and careers.
Image: David Prasad