“You can be anything you want to be! If you work hard, anything is possible!”
It’s an exciting, encouraging message for kids – a world where the possibilities are endless and dreams are attainable. But as those kids get older, shouldn’t we help them narrow the field down a bit from “anything”? Because no matter how badly I might want it, I will never be a rocket scientist, WNBA star, or organizational consultant at The Container Store. Not gonna happen. Ever. I’m not naturally good at math or science, I’m 5′ 2″ with no aim, and organization is one of those things that I’m constantly… ahem… working on. Clearly, these professions are not the right match for me, even if I really wanted one of them.
Obviously, those are some extreme examples, but bringing it a little closer to reality, I think I accidentally stumbled onto a fulfilling profession, instead of deliberately choosing it based on my interests. You see, I was a nerd. I read early and often. As a homeschooler, I would look at my reading assignments and truthfully proclaim that I’d already read all those stories. My parents have a picture of me in 7th or 8th grade reading Shakespeare at a Texas Rangers baseball game. Whenever I could, I built my high school class schedule around my English courses, and one Barnes & Noble salesman saw me in the store so often he started giving me his employee discount on my purchases. So naturally, when I thought about my future career, I assumed it would be literary in nature.
I decided early that I would major in English, and then it was a matter of trying to figure out what kind of job would go with that. In 6th grade I thought I would become an author, and through the years I also considered becoming an editor, a journalist, a speech writer, and a librarian (until I figured out they don’t sit around reading books all day). In 12th grade it dawned on me that most English-related jobs don’t involve much social interaction, and despite my love of books, I was also quite the “social butterfly.” If I had to spend eight hours a day behind a desk without talking to people, I’d go crazy. So, I picked the one English-based career I knew that would put me in a room full of people – teaching high school. In hindsight, it was that little part of me that paid attention to my “social-butterfly” tendencies that placed me in the right job, not my years and years of loving books. I paid attention to my strengths, not just my interests. But I didn’t know that’s what I was doing.
I’ve loved my teaching career, but about a year and a half ago, God brought me to place where I was forced to consider the possibility that I might not always get to be a teacher, and I had to figure out what other jobs could provide similar fulfillment. While I was in this place of soul-searching, I heard Marcus Buckingham speak and picked up his book Find Your Strongest Life for the first time. Marcus’s definition and explanation of strengths made so much sense! It’s not just what you’re good at – it’s the activities that excite you and make you feel strong. Knowing how much I love teaching, it surprised me that I didn’t resonate with anything he said about “Teacher” strength qualities. However, when he described the “Adviser” strengths, I clicked with everything he said. I love teaching high school so much because it has consistently provides me with opportunities to play to those Adviser-based strengths. I am good in the classroom because I have an ability to quickly form a strong rapport and connection with my students. I can manage a room full of hormone-crazed, egocentric teens, and I have a blast! I get such a thrill from the moments of teen mentorship and individual breakthroughs. The content has become secondary to helping teens prepare for life. Fortunately, the English content lends itself readily to those moments, between the literature-based discussions and teaching expression through writing. I love that.
As I look back on my adolescence, those “adviser” strengths where always there. I just didn’t see it or have the terminology to describe it. I didn’t understand that what I called “being a social butterfly” actually played to my desire to advise and help those around me. As a teenager myself, people trusted me. A lot. In my tiny private school, I knew that the class clown’s jokes were just a mask, and I knew why he hid behind it. Younger girls outside my close circle of friends confided in me with their pregnancy scares. Both guys and girls came to me for dating advice all the time, even though I never dated myself as a teen. In just my first few weeks of college, I counselled one new classmate through his grandmother’s sudden death and another through his break-up with his long-term girlfriend. My college theater friends eventually nicknamed me “The Logic,” because they knew whatever drama came our way (and we were theater kids – drama is a given), they trusted me to handle it all in a level-headed, logical way. And when I think back on my lifelong love of literature, I always phrased my interest in reading as being fascinated with “the written expression of the human condition.” Even my book-nerdiness was rooted in a desire to explore how people deal with what it means to be human. Maybe if I’d been able to fit all those pieces together back then, I might have explored psychology and guidance counseling in conjunction with my English major a bit sooner.
But now that I do see it, I want to really run with it and see what’s possible. I want to bring a focus to helping teens figure out not just “what they want to be when they grow up,” but what options are the right match for each individual, and to help them figure out that whole process we call becoming an adult. I don’t know where this is going to go, but I’m excited about the possibilities.