At the age of 16 or 17 most kids have to start thinking about and actually decide what field they want to be in for work. This, of course, is the whole college selection journey that begins with picking a school, a minor, and a major. In the end the hope is obviously that a job will come along in said field. Some teenagers have a solid conviction of what they’ve always wanted to be, but it’s typical to be pretty clueless. It’s only a decision that impacts the rest of your life, but you’ve been on the planet 16 years…so….you’ve got this. You have to start to hone in on what you think you might like to do all day, while also getting paid a decent wage. Those things don’t necessarily go together, but nonetheless, at the wise age of 16 we dive into our best guess.
My bedroom was painted royal blue. I had a thing for the color blue back then. The ceiling was smothered with Rolling Stone magazine covers end to end. I absolutely loved Mark Saliger’s photos. I poured over the Rolling Stone interviews imagining that someday I would be the author to many music legend interviews. I wondered what I wanted to do with my life and often stared up at my ceiling hoping I would some day end up at Rolling Stone. I decided that since writing was something I loved and I got good grades in that subject, I’d be best at a journalism. I also remember thinking that whatever I majored in, I’d have to make sure there was as little math involved as possible. Legitimately, that was a concern for me since math never was my strong suit.
I started out at community college due to finances. My dream had been to go to the University of Southern California, but I quickly realized that picking a college simply because I wanted to go there was a luxury that was not in the cards. When I signed up for our local community college, I felt disenchanted. My dreams of moving away to Cali had been pushed aside. In my mind, I had big plans for myself. One year later, I ended up attending a university in Illinois about 4 hours from home.
One afternoon, I visited the placement office at community college to nail down a major. The office was filled with shelves of books about every possible occupation under the sun. I went and thumbed through a couple, finally settling in on Public Relations Specialist.
I read the description over and over and looked at the average salary of $70,000 a year.
“Wow, that is SO much money.” The wheels were in serious motion in my head, “I’ll be rich!” I was sure I was going to be poppin’ bottles with P. Diddy and J. Lo. The words in job description bounced up and down on the page with excitement right at me. Media, Radio, Television, Writing, Celebrity, Top Executives, Relationships, Communication. Whatever this job description was selling, I was buying with all of the tip money in my pocket. It all sounded so glamourous! $70K to my 18 year old self also sounded like a million dollars, ah, how things change…but I digress.
It listed the majors and minors for this type of role. And guess what? There was hardly any math involved. I signed up to major in journalism with a minor in marketing. I felt my planning was thorough since I had a plan A and a plan B. Plan A would be to try to become a writer for Rolling Stone, while plan B would be the PR Specialist gig that had dazzled me dizzy. I knew I would minor in marketing because it had been my father’s major and he had turned out successful, so why not? That was the amount of thought I put into my minor. I chose it blindly with a whole lot of gusto.
Basically that describes my entire decision making process- from start to finish.
I loved my classes, there was just one smidgeon of a problem. While in my journalism class we were writing about Princess Diana’s death that had been all over the news. The professor went on at length about the long hours journalists put in, the sometimes life or death situations, and the right and wrong decisions they’d have to make in certain circumstances (case in point with Diana). I was riveted and wondered if my job at Rolling Stone would be that way. I committed in my mind to do whatever it took. But it was something else he said that changed my course right then and there-literally.
“Who in this class loves writing?” He had a deep voice that carried out of the class and into the hallway.
“OK, now who in this class wants to make money in this profession?” His wry smile curled.
This next part I am paraphrasing; I cannot remember his exact words.
“Those who kept your hands up for the second question need to change your majors right now. You will be poor as a journalist. This is a fact unless you strike gold somehow. I will spell it out for you folks- you will barely make enough money to live and you will work like a dog. You have to live, breathe, and die by writing, accepting that you will likely not make much money.”
I changed my major that following week. I had watched my mom work her butt off and struggle as a hairdresser ever since her and my Dad divorced. In addition to that, my Dad had dropped a scary amount of weight when the real estate market took a nose dive in the mid eighties. For many months, when we’d stay at his condo, we’d have fish sticks with ketchup for dinner during that ailing time in his career. I didn’t want to live on fish sticks if I had anything to do about it. Money struggles legitimately scared me, and I would need to pick something that was more reliable. So I said goodbye to my dream of writing. I chose to major in Communications and Human Relations, which I was still pretty happy with.
In the end, I feel fortunate. I ended up picking a major that was right for me and has served me well since it lends itself to many career paths (and there was no math).
If I could change one thing, it would likely have been my minor in marketing. I think I should have minored in English Lit or something else specific to writing. Then again, maybe without that emphasis in marketing I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of working for one of the best marketing firms around. It was an incredibly fun learning experience and was chock full of good people and amazing volunteer opportunities. I do wonder if I didn’t have that minor of marketing on my resume, would I have gotten that job? I remember the head hunter setting me up for the interview (as a temporary receptionist) and mentioning it was good that I had that on my resume. I did end up getting asked to interview for an Executive Assistant role there while temping, which then lead me to an Account Executive role and later a Sr. Account Executive position. I guess you never know where your path will lead you!
Along the course of different positions I’ve had over the years at various companies, I can say that I’ve pinned down what I dislike: spreadsheets and data entry. Does anyone like this? If you do, bless your heart. I’ve also come to know what I’m not so good at; being analytical. A double whammy of things I loathe was putting analytical data into spreadsheets. It makes my skin crawl just thinking about it. It felt like I was dying a slow death. Now imagine putting data into a system that was 14 years old that crashed all the time. OK, I’ll stop now. I can already tell you feel my pain.
What have I learned that I am sharing with you? Ask your teenagers what they like to do, what they could do for years to come without tiring of it, what their weaknesses are, and what they know they despise doing. It’s impossible for them to narrow it down perfectly since they haven’t had enough life experience or job experience yet, but I do believe it will still help.
If you’ve been out of school now for quite sometime and are looking to overhaul your professional life like I just did-ask yourself those same questions. Realistically, if you’re like me and have a family to support, there will be different variables to weigh in your decision making process.
I’m going to be forty in a year and a half. In my opinion, it took me way too long to figure out the things I should have run the opposite direction from job wise. Lean into your strengths even if it means you won’t get a handsome financial reward. Sure I’ve had to compromise and downsize a bit, but there’s no price tag on happy.
When I think back to what my professor said that day, I wonder if I hadn’t listened to it how things would be different. It’s not a feeling of regret at all, it’s just curiosity. It’s apparent that the writing landscape has definitely changed. After the 19 years of job and life experience I’ve had since that day, I’ve learned that there are many different options.
It helps to look into your options, think about them, ask people about their professions, etc. You can still do the things you enjoy without being paid for them. I am able to be a writer today just for fun. The fact that writing, people, and creativity are actively part of my life makes me feel richer than ever, even if in the dollar sense that’s not the case.
“The greatest wealth is to live content with little, for there is never want where the mind is satisfied.”- Lucretius