Monday, May 9, 2011

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Remember when you were a little kid, and grown-ups all used to ask you that same question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The question itself has certain underlying expectations: that a person is defined by his profession, that true passion is something that is innate and not learned, and that children should all have some sort of goal.

Personally, I always dreaded that question. Mostly because I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. Usually I would lie just to avoid any awkwardness. "I want to be an astronaut!" I would say, because it always made adults' faces light up, and let's face it, space is pretty cool. But even though all your teachers and your parents assure you that you can grow up to be anything, whatever you want, I wasn't naive enough to believe that I would actually be an astronaut one day, especially once I learned that being an astronaut was more about engineering and mathematics than zero-gravity sports and meeting extra-terrestrials. So every once in a while, I would respond truthfully with a simple "I don't know." Now most adults aren't sure how to handle this response. To be fair to them they were probably just trying to start a conversation to entertain me, and I wasn't providing much help. So they'd pause for a beat, then ask me what sort of things I was interested in, or give me some classical options: "How about a fireman! Or a doctor!" they'd say, as if the suggestion of a generic job title would give me a sudden epiphany for which I would credit them in my Nobel acceptance speech twenty or thirty years down the line. But I was stubborn in my ambivalence, because I really did have no idea, and eventually the interrogation would end with a smile and a pat on the head. "Well don't worry about it now, you've got plenty of time to figure that out!" seemed to be the standard reassurance, which always irked me a little. I wasn't worried about it before, but the constant suggestion that I should be always made me wonder if there was somehow something wrong with me.

As I grew older, people continued to ask: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And still I didn't know, nor did I usually care. But that nagging voice in the back of my head got louder as I got older, and I continued to wonder if I should get my act together and figure out what it was I wanted to do with my life. But people kept assuring me, "Don't worry about it now, you've got plenty of time!" When it came time to apply to colleges, I stuck to Liberal Arts programs, because even though I didn't know what I wanted to "be" when I grew up, I knew what kind of things I found interesting. And when I got to Lehigh, it took me all four of the allotted "take a lot of classes to figure out what you like" semesters before I finally studied on Global Studies as a major (in part because my adviser, Jack Lule, continued to reassure me that I didn't need to have my career trajectory mapped out quite yet).

So that's how I now find myself, only two weeks away from graduation, still with no halfway decent response to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I don't blame anybody but myself for the procrastination, but I'm still not sure if its as big of a problem that everyone has always hinted it to be. Don't get me wrong, I've always been insanely impressed by and secretly jealous of those who have known what they wanted to do since they were able to articulate it with words. But there's another part of me that doesn't understand it, the same part that always prevents me from giving a straight answer to the question. To be frank, I just don't understand how somebody could know, right this second, what they want to do for the rest of their time on earth. The idea terrifies me. What if you pick the wrong thing? What if you aren't as good at it as you thought you would be? What if you change your mind one day, and you've been lying to yourself and everyone else for as long as you've been declaring that you know what you want to do with your life?

I guess that's why Global Studies and all of its great professors like Jack Lule and John Jirik have always appealed to me. They push students to focus on information and learning instead of the endgame. When they tell me not to worry about the future, I listen, because... well they turned out alright, didn't they?

If I had to guess, I think that Clay Shirky would probably tell me not to worry either. After reading his latest book on social-media, "Cognitive Surplus," I couldn't help but think that he'd find himself in pleasant company among the global studies professors at Lehigh. "Cognitive Surplus" is mostly about how people are putting their free-time to better and better use these days. Whether it's in writing a Wikipedia article that will serve to educate the online masses, or a caption for a LOLCat that will simply amuse them, people are starting to use their free time to create rather than simply consume. The best part about Shirky's book though, is that Shirky sees both of these activities as valuable. Got an idea? Try it out! Shirky says. If it doesn't work, try something new. You don't have to devote your life to the original idea; if it succeeds that's great, but if it fails that's great too. And that's where I find the greatest solace: in the idea that failure is just as valuable as success. "As a general rule, it is more important to try something new, and work on the problems as they arise, then to figure out a way to do something new without having any problems," Shirky says.

I am really, really good at failure. I started tons of projects that never took off! I've had lots of ridiculous plans that crashed and burned spectacularly, like when I decided to create a website from scratch using notepad, or when I started a blog about international hip-hop, or when I decided to start a campaign to get Lehigh to get rid of that stupid rule that makes you change all your passwords every 6 months. And while I knew that every time I experienced one of these failures I also learned something, there was a small part of me that tried to convince myself not to try the next time, because I was sure to fail. But Clay Shirky has reassured me that it's not only okay to fail, its great! Before Facebook became the standard for social networking, there were hundreds of attempts at such like, Friendster and MySpace. And while Andrew Weinreich, the man who created, is probably not enthralled that it is Mark Zuckerberg and not him who is now the world's youngest billionaire, he would be remiss if he dismissed the SixDegrees project as worthless. After, Weinreich went on to found a slew of internet start-ups, most of which probably have some vestiges of the things that worked in, while he has probably avoided the things that didn't.

So thanks to Clay Shirky, to Jack Lule, and to all the great mentors I've had throughout my life, for reassuring me that I don't need to know what I want to be when I grow up- and that it's okay to fail.

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