When I was seven I wanted to be a candy-maker. What better way to spend your days than making fudge, pulling taffy and eating every candy in sight? As soon as I learned that candy-makers cannot eat all their candy, my ambitions changed.
So then I wanted to be an astronaut. Then a teacher. Then an actress. Then an astronaut again. As time went by I realized my choices were not made for me — they were to please others. The nice stranger at my brother’s baseball game or my great-aunt at a family reunion; all were the same, all asked the same terrifying question. They lean in, bend at the knees, smile real wide and ask in their best little kid voice: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” God, I hated it.
This questioning, of course, gets worse as you progress through high school and college, as small talk quickly transforms into judgement hour. College and career fairs dominate lunch time, and introductory questions transform from “What do you like to do?” to “What are you going to do with your life?”
This one is a big one. My life. My. Life. What do I want to do with it? I want to travel, I want to learn, I want to explore, I want to live. But that’s never the answer people want to hear. Better answers include “I want to work in a lab!” or “I want to practice environmental law!” Anything is better than “I don’t know.” But that was the only answer I could ever give.
My problem wasn’t a lack of passion — it was having too much. I have always loved school. Not just enjoyed it, but “winter-break-is-too-long” loved it. Teach me anything, from Chaucer to the Calvin Cycle, from Vietnam to velocity, I could learn forever. Each new discipline I learned made me shift my mental career map of my future every week. Learning organic chemistry made me want to be an environmental chemist, reading Shakespeare made me want to be a playwright and studying Supreme Court cases made me want to be a lawyer.
Above that I wanted to travel, maybe teach and continue learning — all things that certain careers make impossible. I tossed and turned at night, worrying with extreme indecisiveness about what I would do with my life.
Like most students, when I got into UC Berkeley, my stress only increased. I had to choose a major, one that would decide my career and then rest of my life, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I met people who loved their major, and others who had changed 10 times. I talked to professors and GSIs, and a strange realization hit me. I don’t have to know anything.
Thirty-two percent of college graduates have never worked in a field related to their major, according to a survey from CareerBuilder. My favorite human rights professor has a bachelor’s degree in math, and I know multiple engineers who majored in English. For most people, college isn’t about learning a specific field of study. It’s about learning about yourself, what you like, what you don’t and what you want to do with your one life.
I’m not a religious person, so I live in a constant existential crisis, never understanding where I might find meaning in my life, if I will ever find it. Thus, I feel a strange existential necessity to do something with my life that will give it meaning, whatever that means. I know I will not be content to a life lived unfulfilled, without passion or risk, and I’m still not sure how to make that happen, but I know I will.
I’m a sophomore now, currently working on a major and three minors. Unsurprisingly, that has changed four times, and it will probably continue to change as I take amazing classes and learn from fantastic professors. Every time I take a new class, I discover something new about myself, my passions and the person I want to be. But that doesn’t mean I know what I want to do. I still have no clue. Ask me today, I’ll say I want to stage-manage. Tomorrow, it may be a human rights lawyer. Next week, I might just up and join the Peace Corps — and that is okay.
Whether you do know what you want to do with your life, or don’t, there’s no need to stress about it. While you might not be able to do anything you want (I sadly discovered last year I will never be an astronaut), you can do quite a lot of amazing things with this one little life that we have. So next time your best friend’s uncle’s grand-niece’s turtle asks you that dreaded question at the next Fourth of July party, just answer honestly: “Whatever I want.”