It’s Never Too Early to Start a Career Path

If you don’t already know, ask your kids what they want to be when they grow up. Some will say that they don’t know. Others might change their mind a dozen times. But most kids are going to have one thing that they love and they’re deeply invested in.

Every fall, my Facebook feed is filled with back-to-school pics alongside emotional posts about how fast the kids are growing up. But as sad as it is for us as parents, it’s important to never lose sight of the fact that this phase is only the beginning for them, and one of the most important things we can do is help them learn a valuable skill that will help them live a comfortable life in a changing economy that we can’t predict.

A Changing World

Like so many of our generation, Justin and I spent far too many years trading one job for another in the pursuit of incremental pay increases that invariably failed to keep pace with the cost of living.

Like so many, we were told by our parents’ generation that we had to study hard and get into a good college if we wanted to succeed. The goal was, of course, to get a steady job with a good company where you could work for decades and eventually retire.

If there’s one thing I think we can all pretty much agree on, it’s that that model has completely failed our generation. The great irony of this is that many of the older generation seem to get endless joy out of mocking younger generations for wasting money on college and being afraid to do “dirty work.”

In reality, we went to college and got into astronomical debt because we had it drilled into us by Baby Boomers that was the only way to succeed. In reality, most of us have done dirty, back-breaking work for low pay because our planned career path didn’t pan out or because our primary job wasn’t enough on its own. I don’t know many Xennials or Millennials who haven’t worked in a hot kitchen, done low-paying overnight shifts as caregivers, or taken odd jobs scrubbing floors or mowing lawns or doing construction.

I don’t know many who haven’t consistently worked upwards of fifty hours a week and held two or three jobs for extended periods of time. Work today doesn’t always look like what work looked like before Y2K, but Millennials and Xennials are working more jobs and longer hours than their parents did.

Even seeing this happen in real time, Boomers are far too often still fundamentally disconnected from the difference in our economic and corporate culture from decades ago.

Whatever we tell our kids about planning for the future, we have to learn from our predecessors’ mistakes and be able to understand that the economic and professional world we came of age in likely won’t be the same for them as it was for us. And we have to listen to them and believe in them if we are to help them make a plan that works.

I believe we have a lot to learn from younger generations. When I look at Millennials and Generation Z, I notice a striking quality: adaptability. While Baby Boomers sometimes mock the younger groups because they can’t always understand how things have changed, younger generations are adapting to those changes nonetheless.

Younger generations have forged infinitely creative new ways to work and live in their effort to adapt to low wages and the ever-creeping cost of living. They have created new avenues to wealth and success by developing creative uses of technology and personal branding. When traditional routes of education and wealth fail, they use networking and social media to learn and refine skills.

When I started writing web content full-time, I soon realized that many of my biggest competitors were self-taught Millennials who in many cases were not the most academic writers in school. I watched a great many web content videos and read articles from web content experts who learned how the industry worked and taught themselves how to do the job. I also realized that many of them started doing the job while they were still in high school.

When I worked at Union High School as a tutor, I learned that quite a few of the students were doing the same. Unlike students of my generation who had traditional “teen” jobs like working in fast food or babysitting, I worked with many students who were doing work that could easily translate into a full-time professional career with a little experience and time.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Selling their art on the web
  • Designing T-shirts
  • Designing web apps
  • Writing sports web content
  • Playing music at events and venues
  • Selling products on Instagram they purchased online in bulk

One thing that stands out to me is that unlike my generation, there is no longer a clear line drawn between high school work and career work. Younger Millennials and Generation Z are starting their careers young.

And this isn’t just true for creative professions and tech industry work. Many young people are learning trades from family members and taking advantage of tech school and professional development. While the collected data shows lower overall rates of employment among teens than previous generations, in part due to the high burden of homework teens today face and low pay, 22 percent of teens age 16 to 18 are finding non-traditional ways to make money.

Setting a Course

When my kids tell me what they want to do with their lives, I believe them. I believe them because I have never not been a writer. I believe them because every time I wrote anything, every time I read a book or an article, I was working on my ten thousand hours.

I’ve also come to understand something crucial about practicing one’s craft. Yes, some folks are born with natural talent. But most of the world’s most gifted actors, writers, and musicians are that way for the same reason the best engineers and doctors are: because they’ve put in the hours and committed to learning from the mistakes and successes of themselves as well as others.

By the time I was in second grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. At the beginning of the year, the teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up on a worksheet. “An author,” I wrote in my best penmanship, brimming with pride.

I practiced writing every day through my childhood, although I did not know it. In the days before text messages, middle schoolers passed notes in class which were folded neatly into rectangles using a method every Xennial girl ever born knows by heart. The nerdiest among us wrote epic epistolaries to rival the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams in pink and purple bubbly cursive, dotted with circles or hearts, signed with LYLAS.

I was also a prolific diary keeper, at least in spurts, on and off from probably fourth grade and into young adulthood, every stroke of my Bic pen honing my beautiful cursive as well as my grammar and writing style.

By the time I started writing professionally, I had already spent countless hours learning my craft through books, school, and my own writing. Any inclination I ever had toward another career, whether healthcare or education, never brought me financial security or success because it distracted from what I was best at and what I truly wanted to be doing.

In fact, the thing that hurt me the most in my ability to have a stable income was letting my back-up plan become my plan. I was so busy trying to keep my backup plan available that I never really believed in my first plan, to be a writer. And that’s a real tragedy if you think about it. By the time I was halfway through college, I had begun to think becoming a writer professionally was more of a what-if scenario than a plan.

Like making it big with a rock band or making it in Hollywood as a young actor.

See, I had allowed myself to tune down my instinct and my passion and let others’ fears, insecurities, and worldviews alter my own.

Real Jobs and Real Degrees

When I was going to college, I can’t tell you how many people straight up laughed in my face when I told them that I was getting an English degree. Honestly, they still do. Writing wasn’t a “real job,” and English wasn’t a “real degree.” As a result, I internalized a belief that I had to somehow convert that degree to the kind of job everyone else had. A steady job with a retirement plan and an IRA.

I wasted far too many years of my life chasing the idea of what I thought I was supposed to be doing and abandoned my own plan. But the one thing I learned through that experience is my back-up plan had been ruining my chances at both happiness and financial stability.

In reality, when I couldn’t get steady work with one plan, it really wasn’t all that hard to learn a second or third or fourth trade. Like most Xennials and our younger siblings the Millennials, I’ve changed careers a few times. I’ve been a restaurant server, a retail worker, a cocktail waitress, a tutor, a pre-K teacher’s assistant, a writing center director, and even a call center worker.

Changing careers was never the hard part.

But through all of it, I kept writing. For a while I experimented with blogging on Myspace and Blogger. I wrote academic papers and had little features in local rags. I wrote short stories about a man who accidentally invented a robot through dumpster diving and an older woman who inadvertently created a youth elixir and fell in love with a conspiracy theorist she worked across from at the flea market.

The one constant through it all was that instead of having a back-up plan and continuing to write, I had let writing become my back-up plan. I wrote characters who stumbled into goodness because it was the best I could hope for myself.

In fact, it was only when I decided my back-up plan couldn’t be any worse than my actual plan that I finally decided to risk my steady but low-paying job for the promise of a full-time career in writing, a gamble that paid off substantially and was partly responsible for the gradual change in income and lifestyle we’re now experiencing.

That gamble is why I now work from home surrounded by my cats while watching Star Trek or listening to Max Richter all day and why I’m able to be there for my kids before and after school.

I had come to a point where I fundamentally shifted the way I viewed writing. I had allowed myself to believe that writing is a gift you either have or you don’t, and that I was just one of many countless writers trying to make it in the world with my mediocre talent. But my world changed the day I began to view writing as a valuable professional skill. As my most valuable professional skill.

Plan A and Plan B

I don’t always agree with everything Steve Harvey says, but one day a clip from his show passed across my Facebook feed and I clicked on it, and he said something that impacted me profoundly:

“I have never told my children to get a back-up plan. I do not believe in back-up plans. See, if you have a plan A, and you’re thinking that it might not work. Let’s just say you really want plan A to work but you need a back-up plan.

You have to stop working plan A to prepare plan B, which takes away the energy and the effort to make A work. So now this is what I’ve found in life. Everybody that planned for a back-up plan had to end up using it…Suppose you’ve done all you can and your plan A just fails and it don’t work and there’s nothing you can do about it. What you gonna do then…I’ll get another plan A.”

Changing the Game

The national conversation about education in the United States tends to be about privatization versus public education or on the college level, whether college is necessary and whether student loans should be repaid by the government.

Those are important conversations to have. But in all of that, nobody is really talking about how the education youth are getting today translates to their careers of the future. And when we do look at it, we’re talking about it based on an economic and professional worldview that is increasingly less relevant.

I asked my kids what they want to be when they grow up. Noah, the boy who has been fascinated with the mechanics of vehicles and buildings since before he could speak, wants to be a wind turbine engineer. That’s all he has ever wanted.

Arthur wants to be a game developer or animator, possibly both, and he is well on his way to getting his ten thousand hours of drawing and writing stories. Lucy says she wants to be a cupcake baker and an animator. Like Arthur, she draws constantly.

by Lucy

Like engineering, animation is a field and a profession to be learned. I don’t plan to make the mistake of waiting until they’re in high school to start talking about a career path. We talk about their career path often. They’re already on it.

Noah can’t start working as a wind turbine engineer today, but he can learn about engineering and begin making his own engineering projects.

Arthur and Lucy have requested a copy of Adobe Animator so they can learn how to animate and start creating their own short videos like Jaiden Animations.

And if they change their minds about their careers, we’ll support them too. What we won’t do is hold them to a standard that no longer applies or force them to focus on a field we perceive to be more marketable. Even if they don’t become Jaiden Animations-level YouTubers or a wind turbine engineer, they can find other ways to market their skills as long as they keep practicing what they do. Maybe the animators can design T-shirts.

If they want to make YouTube videos, we’ll help them learn how. They can sell their art to friends and family to help cover the costs and experience what it’s like to hone their craft and sell their work for pay. Maybe Noah can work through high school doing complicated repair jobs.

Whatever they decide they want to do, we are going to encourage them to pursue their interests completely not in the future, but today.

No back-up plans. Just plans.

Thanks for reading. Have a beautiful week.


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