By: Sean Massa
At some point in my young life I knew I wanted to be a doctor. Then I wanted to be an orca whale trainer at Sea World. Then I wanted to be a marine biologist. Then I wanted to be a doctor again. At some point in this progression of constant change my parents decided to support that dream of mine. Showing me a kindergarten drawing of a doctor I apparently drew from a paper prompt stating “What I want to be when I grow up,” I soon began to take on this narrative as my own - that I was going to someday be a medical doctor.
When I applied to college, I wrote my personal statement about how I wanted to study neuroscience and become a neurologist or neurosurgeon. This same essay paved my entry into an elite Ivy League university. Yet, after I started my studies something strange happened to this narrative. Quite simply, I began to doubt it.
In college, I realized that my heart actually belonged to the social sciences. Don't get me wrong. I loved taking my natural science courses. Even today, I can recount to any random person the beautiful intricacies of neurotransmitters, explain how trophic pyramids show why we should become vegetarians, and point easily to my sternocleidomastoid muscle (it's in your neck). Though I studied health, I enjoyed more learning about how it was influenced by culture, politics, and religion. I was not as much interested in studying not the human body as I was the human condition. At some point during my junior year, I took the leap to follow this unknown path. I was unsure if I wanted to be a doctor, or whether my parents wanted me to be one, or both.The linear narrative that gave me comfort, security, and direction became unraveled and unwritten.
Embracing unfamiliar passions and letting go of a defined professional narrative is possibly the most difficult thing I've ever had to do. However, it has also been the most rewarding. My health studies led me to an interest in international affairs which led me to where I am currently, working with an internship with the United Nations. Even so, I find that every so often my mind changes about what I'm interested in, what kind of job I want to have, and what I think makes me happy. And that's completely okay. From embracing this uncertainty, I've come to learn a number of important life lessons:
1) It's okay to not have everything perfectly planned out.
Life is dynamic. Our situations change, and so do we. I am not saying that you shouldn't have any goals or visions at all for your future. What I am saying is that these goals you make for yourself should have a degree of flexibility and practicality. Give yourself options and opportunity.
2) You will not be the same person in 5 years that you are today.
When I asked my graduate student friend whether it would be a good idea to pursue a Ph.D., she asked me a simple question: “Do you have the same interests you had 5 years ago? Are you the same person you were 5 years ago?” Obviously, I said no. So much had changed during the formative years of high school and college. I was learning more about my place in the world and how I sought out my own happiness and wellbeing. Though her question was not meant to deter me from pursuing a Ph.D. (I still consider it from time-to-time), I am grateful for how it opened my eyes to see one thing - that so much can change in a short of amount of time. This change is inevitable, so take notice, adapt, and embrace it!
3) Be mindful about how you are changing as a person.
Some people go through life chasing the same dreams. Sometimes, this becomes a story of perseverance. Sometimes, this leads people to chase after things that truly do not make them happy. Always be mindful as you pursue your passions: what do you like now? what did you like before? what has changed? are you doing what makes you happy? if not, why not? It may sometimes take the hard questions, but if you ask them honestly you will gain greater insight into your own strengths and transitions. These are the questions that are good to ask yourself now as a student, later as a professional, and for whatever lies ahead.
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