Choosing a Career For Teens
"I want to set a career goal for myself. For as long as I remember, my parents have always told me to be a doctor. I complied for a while. But I didn't want to be generic or a conformist. And quickly I developed interests of my own [in international affairs, government, politics and economics] ... I want to have a high income, frankly, who doesn't? But I also want to complement my interests ... what can I do, career-wise?"
This is part of what Shaan, a 16-year old high school sophomore wrote me after reading my recent column on redirecting Muslim scholarship. A few friends and their kids also asked me almost the same question. Here I share a rehash of my answer I gave them.
The question of choosing a career concerns almost all of us. Because there are so many career options, there is no one right choice. Yet of the alternative choices, some may be wiser than others.
Let's say choosing the best career is like buying the best pair of shoes in the market. Can you examine all available shoes in the market? Do you have the time or luxury to do so? You may examine a few pairs in several shops and pick the one that you like most. Or, you may fall in love with the first pair you see. The former choice is your "bounded rational" or "satisficing" choice and the latter, an emotional or brainwashed choice. You get brainwashed when you see only one side of the coin. All types of choices fall in between these two extremes. Our rationality is "bounded" or limited. Psychologist Leon Festinger would even say that we are not rational, but rationalizing animals.
Put another way, making an intelligent or wiser choice of a career is like balancing a complex equation with many variables. You must weigh and consider the value of each variable to balance it. You can assign a higher value to a variable (e.g., making money or writing books), a moderate value to another (e.g., social service or name and fame), or a lower value to another (e.g., having freedom of your time or a better quality of life, however you define it). It is a hard equation. You must be ready to pay the "opportunity cost," however. This means you can't have the cake and eat it too -- e.g., you probably cannot be a Nobel Prize winner in economics, physics, peace, and literature at the same time.
If your goal is to make more money, you may or may not get it. Making a lot of money is something that we can wish but not determine. Furthermore, there are many more ways to make money than being computer scientists, dentists, engineers or medical doctors. Consider, for example, Oprah Winfrey who makes millions of dollars each year, a student of mine who made a fortune from trading in stocks, or even Monica Lewinsky who made millions by selling her nasty story.
In order to make a decent living and productive intellectual life, a life of leadership, you may not have to study or reject a particular discipline (e.g., medicine). You can study any discipline and distinguish yourself in it by your excellence. You may not have to be a medical doctor that makes a lot of money but has little time to enjoy the fruits of his labor or contribute to society. This does not mean you should not study medicine and become a doctor. But if you choose to study medicine, go for research targeting the Nobel Prize.
There is no one best career to choose. A career will be best for you once you can make the best of it. This also means that what your parents tell you to do may turn out to be good eventually. What you choose independently may be a wrong choice, even though you strive to make the best choice. But these are all chances. It is therefore better to "tie your camel" (i.e., make an intelligent choice).
Better yet, follow the tradition of Prophet Muhammad to pray for guidance in making a choice, meditate over the options, and pick the one that your mind favors the most. This is essentially how the contemporary psychoorientologists tell folks to make decisions. Instead of praying as Muslims do, they ask people to meditate over the choices and then follow their hunches.
Mohammad A. Auwal is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles and is a regular columnist for iviews.com