Why Not Knowing What You Want to be When You Grow Up is Totally Okay

My freshman academic advisor, who went on to become my senior thesis advisor and one of my closest mentors, invited me into her office partway through my first fall semester. As soon as I sat down, she asked one of the most terrifying questions any young person can encounter: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I faltered for a moment or two, then answered honestly: “I don’t know.” Her response was one of the most surprising and helpful I ever received. “Good,” she told me. “I’m glad to hear that.”

She went on to explain that students who come into college with the next 20 years of their life planned out may end up being successful, but they don’t fully appreciate the explorative process that is an undergraduate education. She told me to stay motivated and inspired, but to try challenging classes, develop new skills, discover myself in areas I’d never before considered.

For many students, that question looms over their heads for the entirety of their four college years, pressuring them to choose a career path and plan their undergraduate life accordingly. I found myself pressured to answer that question myself from time to time after that first academic meeting; a practical, goal-oriented student, I sometimes felt lost and disoriented without a long-term plan in mind. But not knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up turned out to be the best indecision of my life.

I took a variety of classes, from literature and theatre to sociology and computer science. I rediscovered a passion for writing and journalism through my involvement with my school newspaper, and I fell more deeply in love with theatre through student productions. Four years after that first talk with my advisor, I still don’t have an official answer to that question — but I do know what inspires and motivates me. From there, I’m confident I’ll find my way.

As an undergraduate student, all sorts of people are going to ask you The Question — your parents, career counselors, your advisors and professors — but not knowing is perfectly normal. In fact, it will allow you to shape your undergraduate career in an innovative, exciting way, free of long term plans and open to exploration. It’s easy to feel jealous of those students who have their entire lives planned out, from undergrad to graduate school to a professional career — but taking your time through the college process in invaluable. Keep learning, discovering and growing; after all, that’s what college is really all about.

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