Question: I'm 21 years old and still haven't figured out what I want to do with my life. How can I find an achievable goal and begin moving toward it?
Dr. Dobson: Selecting an occupation and training for it can be a very difficult assignment. It's tough to predict what you'll want to be doing when you're 50 or 60 years old, yet you're obligated to guess. You may not even know what the work will be like, yet you enroll yourself in a lengthy academic program or otherwise seek ways to train for it.
The decisions you make under these circumstances may lock you into something you will later hate. And there are also social pressures that influence your choices. For example, how many young women secretly want to be wives and mothers but are afraid to admit it in today's "liberated' society? Furthermore, how can a girl plan to do something that requires the participation of another person - a husband - who will love and commit himself to her for the rest his life? Marriage may or may not be in the picture for her. Yes, there is plenty to consider for men and women at your age in life.
I was very fortunate to have stumbled into a profession when I was young that I have been able to do reasonably well. If I had been born in ancient times and had been required to earn a living with my hands, perhaps in carpentry or stonemasonry, I would have probably starved to death. Craftsmanship is just not in my nature. I spent an entire semester trying to make a box in which to store shoeshine stuff. What a waste! At least that experience helped me rule out a few occupational possibilities.
To make an informed decision about a profession, you'll need to get six essential components together, as follows:
1. It must be something you genuinely like to do. This choice requires you to identify your own strengths, weaknesses and interests.
2. It must be something you have the ability to do. You might want to be an attorney but lack the talent to do the academic work and pass the bar examination.
3. It must be something you can earn a living by doing. You might want to be an artist, but if people don't buy your paintings, you could starve while sitting at your easel.
4. It must be something you are permitted to do. You might make a wonderful physician and could handle the training but can't gain entrance to medical school. I went through a Ph.D. program in graduate school with a fellow student who washed out after seven years of classwork. He made it to the last big exam before his professors told him, "You're out."
5. It must be something that brings cultural affirmation. In other words, most people need to feel some measure of respect from their contemporaries for what they do. This is one reason women have found it difficult to stay home and raise their children.
6. Most important for those with a faith, it must be something that you feel you should be doing with your life. Some refer to this as a "calling,' or a sense of meaning that work should provide.
What makes it so tough to choose an occupation is that all six of these requirements must be met at the same time. If you get five of them down but you don't like what you have selected, you're in trouble. If you can get five together but are rejected by the required professional schools, you are blocked. If you can get five lined up but you can't earn a living at the job of your choice, the system fails.
Given this challenge, it isn't surprising that so many young people, like yourself, struggle in their early 20s. They become immobilized for years not knowing what to do next.
Young adults in this situation remind me of rockets sitting on their launchpads. Their engines are roaring and belching smoke and fire, but nothing moves. The spacecraft was made to blast its way through the stratosphere, but there it sits, as if bolted to the pad. I've met many men and women in their early 20s whose rockets just would not lift them off the ground. And yes, I've known a few whose engines blew up and scattered the debris of broken dreams all over the launchpad.