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All There Is That's Left To Learn


I grew up in a time when a typical question to ask a young person was, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We all memorized some easy answer, mostly to have something to say when relatives came to visit. Some responses were totally unrealistic, though others we held on to throughout college and beyond. A few of us actually became what we said we wanted to be, but there was rarely any real thought about what it meant for our lives that we were choosing that particular profession. I would say the same is true even for getting married and having children. We aren’t taught as kids or young adults about what certain jobs are like, or what it means to have a lifetime partner or be a parent. These are simply steps we think we need to take if we want to be contributing members of society.

I’m surprised at how much I’m learning at this end of life—about myself, about work, and about what I like to do with my time and energy.

Some of us ended up very happy in whatever situation we found or created for ourselves, and others were less so. I remember hearing once that many people lost their interest in being school teachers once they did their student teaching. A semester of shadowing another teacher led them to fully understand the stress and complexity of being responsible for the education of 20 or 30 young people for an entire school year. I also recall a career interest test I once took that asked whether I wanted to work indoors or out, and if I preferred to work with people, machines, or ideas. Of course, no job is that black and white, but it was interesting to me that I had never considered any of those variables when I thought about being a writer or a teacher. And, although I wasn’t bad at either of those things, I also didn’t break down those jobs or my own skills and experience enough to know what I was really good at or what I truly enjoyed doing.


There is a part of me that thinks this lack of detailed attention to something we’re going to be doing for 20 or 30 years is a little bit shocking. It’s as if we’re in such a hurry to get on the road to adulthood, we don’t stop to seriously consider our choices. If you grew up when I did, you also learned early on to view this kind of examination as self-indulgent. My father would have said that it didn’t matter if you loved your work, but that you had work to do. Period. Still, being at the other end of the world of work, I feel tremendously lucky that I really did love what I did—most of the time. And, I learned how to do it better and better the longer I did it. But I’m also thinking about this more these days because I’m wondering what I want to focus on next.


I realized very late in the game that the actual jobs we do are not nearly as important as the skills we develop. In other words, I might have been a pretty good teacher and administrator, but what I was actually good at was communication—listening, summarizing, being clear and being empathetic. These are all aspects of life that I still enjoy, and I find now that I’m finding new ways to use them. Teaching was just one way I could use my ability to connect with other humans.


More than anything, I’m surprised at how much I’m learning at this end of life—about myself, about work, and about what I like to do with my time and energy. It doesn’t necessarily change anything to learn more about myself and about the world around me, but if feels good to realize how deep the well really is.