A college student contemplates career choices inside a thought bubble
Francie Ahrens/Daily

I think the very first thing I can remember wanting to do for a living was be a dinosaur. I was about 4 years old with a very limited conception of what “work” and “money” and “healthcare” were, but nevertheless I needed an answer to the ever-present question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I knew exactly what a dinosaur was, and that seemed — and still seems — pretty damn fun, so I picked that.

I knew that this act — picking something both familiar and exciting, and deciding that that is what you want to be — is a remarkably typical response for young children. But I wanted to see what that had looked like for my classmates. So, I walked around the Diag, and interviewed anyone who’d talk to me, asking: “When you were very young, what did you want to be when you grew up?”

“I wanted to be a Jedi,” LSA sophomore Andrew Reno said when asked about his childhood aspirations. “Yeah, that was number one.”

Rob Rassey, University of Michigan assistant hockey coach, shared a similar sentiment while sitting comfortably on a blue couch in his office.

“I would say from the ages of like four to eight, I wanted to be a Ghostbuster,” Rassey told me, chuckling. “But then, I quickly realized that that wasn’t a great career path.”

Two others had wanted to be astronauts, one had wanted to play in the Premier League, another felt destined to be a garbage truck driver and one had even rejected the prospect of work in general.

“My first thing was I wanted to retire,” Engineering graduate student Hessa Al-Thani said quietly. “I was four. I was starting school, and I wanted to retire.”

Alas, maturation works wonders for killing dreams. 

I shifted slowly from “dinosaur” to “president” to “astronaut” to “hockey player” to “lawyer” and finally rested somewhere in the “I really don’t know” category around high school. Of course, that’s about the time when everyone else started to sound confident in their answers. Tommy and Michael wanted to be doctors, Jada and Geetanjali wanted to be software engineers, and Kevin was already doing business. So with each passing year, my answer of “I don’t really know what I want to be yet,” became less and less satisfactory. 

By the time we reach college, the expectation is that we’ve somewhat figured out an answer to that question. To an extent, I think it’s a fair expectation, because many of us pay thousands of dollars to be here.

But the pressure doesn’t make the question any easier to answer. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” isn’t just a question of profession, it’s a question of identity. The question itself dictates that what you do is who you are, and it isn’t necessarily wrong to do so. Because truthfully, careers often define us in the eyes of others, whether we like it or not, and for many, that muddy mixture of identity, career, image and the confusion that surrounds it all causes stress and makes it exceptionally hard to answer the question. 

In my interviews on the Diag, I noticed that almost nobody liked to talk about the present. When I’d start conversations by asking about youth and what people felt pulled to at a young age, everyone lit up — their answers were funny and unique, and they felt comfortable laughing at themselves. But when I’d ask “So what do you want to be when you grow up now?” the interactions became much more serious. They became less confident and often started to squirm a little bit. It’s a hard question to have a definitive answer to, and not having a good answer can make you feel you’re doing something wrong

When asked if choosing a career has caused her stress, LSA sophomore Annick Gardon, a psychology major, answered very simply: “Yes, and it still does, because I just worry that I won’t find something that brings me joy, or is a career that I feel really passionate about. So yeah, since I’m still looking, it’s still something that’s pretty stressful.”

Gardon isn’t alone — even among those who know what they want to be, there’s often still apprehension, or at least the recollection of it.

“It’s always stressful to have your life planned out, because obviously no one knows what they’re doing,” LSA sophomore Adithi Vijayaraja said. “Like, everyone’s figuring it out, and I feel like asking that question sometimes can cause stress.”

However, I don’t think it’s the question itself that stresses us out, but rather the time limit we impose upon ourselves. Choosing a career feels like a major life choice, and it is. However, I think there’s more flexibility in it than we expect. Your major may not perfectly correlate to your future job, and you may end up like one of the many Americans who opted for a career change during the pandemic. That’s a daunting thought, but I think that’s all the more reason to be very intentional about what you choose, or more specifically — about not rushing into something because you feel that you should have an answer by now.

I noticed that much of students’ stress about the future was amplified by the perception that everyone else had already figured it all out.

“I feel like you’re faced with people that know exactly what they want to do — they go to college, they have a direct path and it doesn’t seem stressful for them,” LSA sophomore Ainsley Adair said.  

And some college students really do carry a disarming level of confidence about their potential careers. A group of freshman engineers I met late on the Diag on a cold Saturday night, Justin Lin, Dinesh Ravikumar and Wayne He, all offered very concrete answers when asked about their potential vocations. They all would be engineers — they were confident about it — and the question of what their careers would be didn’t seem to cause them stress. But most people I talked to were more like Adair. 

“Me, I’m not exactly sure, and I have to figure it out as I go,” she admitted. “It definitely does cause stress.”

Most of the people I spoke with either didn’t yet know, or were vague in answering about career choice. I frequently heard the phrase “I want to do something in” or “I’m thinking about” followed by a field of study. Some abstracted even further. 

“(I want to) have a job, make money,” Engineering graduate student Max Weber said.

Despite his nondescript answer, he seemed to be very confident that everything would work itself out. 

“I always switched between a bunch of stuff when I was a kid, like I didn’t really have a clear plan, ever,” Weber said. “I just kind of did what interested me, and so far it’s been working out.”

Weber was reflective of the people I talked to who seemed the most content while answering the question. These people weren’t necessarily those who knew their exact path, but rather those who felt most confident in the belief that things would fall into place. Others considered their careers secondary to some other goal or value.

“I’d say I want to have a family, if I were to describe my success,” said Reno, the LSA sophomore who had grown up wanting to be a Jedi. “I don’t really care too much about the job I get, just as long as I get enough money to support my family.”

For Reno, the path to contentment amid uncertainty wasn’t always steady. It was daunting, it took time and it was stressful. But he told me that he has started focusing on his own definition of success as opposed to framing it simply in terms of a career, and he’s found comfort in that shift.

“I’m figuring it out, I’m doing better,” he said calmly.

I don’t think a perfect career that goes exactly to plan is necessarily feasible, or ideal. Amid all the uncertainty of being in college and staring down the barrel of the real world, maybe finding contentment with uncertainty is all we can ask for. 

Even Rassey, the assistant hockey coach, had a similar experience. In an interview in his office, he told me about being young and knowing only that he wanted to be around hockey, but unsure of exactly what that meant.

“I feel like every player growing up wants to play pro,” Rassey said. For him, that dream didn’t die young; it was his motivation for years. But eventually, he realized it wasn’t in the cards.

“Definitely (it was a harsh realization),” Rassey said. “There’s the career-ending aspect of it and doing what you love to do. But also, it has been a big part of your life every day since you were 3 years old … Not having that anymore is just as hard.”

And yet, that ending didn’t prevent him from finding fulfillment in other ways. After considering a career in investment banking, he decided to stick with what he felt most passionate about doing — and became a coach. Twelve seasons later, and with stops at Harvard and the Detroit Red Wings along the way, he has found his path.

“I love what I do, I feel incredibly fortunate to do what I do,” Rassey said. “I don’t ever feel like I come in and I have a job … It’s never like, ‘oh man, I gotta go into the office today.’ So it’s very, very fortunate. Very fortunate.”

Maybe Rassey’s one of the lucky few who feel that way. Maybe he’s one of a small number who will find their passion and get to work within it for the rest of their lives. All I know for certain is that he didn’t find that passion by making an ironclad decision at age 18; he found it by knowing himself well enough to be patient.

I think that’s all I can ask of myself: patience. Fifteen years after wanting to be a dinosaur and 10 years after being sure of my career as a professional athlete, I still can’t be certain what I want from a career. It’s something I used to go back and forth on constantly, and it was scary. I remember telling my friends’ parents that I had no clue what I’d be, and telling this university in an application that I didn’t have a clear-cut understanding of what I wanted it to prepare me for, and feeling dumb for admitting it. Now though, I think I’ve finally started to put things together. But it didn’t come from rushing a decision and sticking to it, it came from slowing down, accepting uncertainty, and allowing myself to find my way

I think that’s the best thing you can be at this age: patient. You’ll have your whole life to decide how you define yourself, so don’t force yourself to know the answer right now. Careers consist of a long series of decisions made over time, rather than a singular choice made within the bubble of college — they stretch and shift, as do we, and that’s OK — so there’s no reason to be rigid with our expectations of ourselves now.

Statement Columnist Charlie Pappalardo can be reached at cpappala@umich.edu.