It’s spring registration season. This means the staff is in all-hands-on-deck mode as students come by the dozens to our office to discuss the classes they should be taking in the spring to keep them on track toward graduation. Somewhere in those meetings I try to ask about what the student’s plan is for after graduation, or what they want to do, or why they chose that particular combination of majors/minors. And, like clockwork, the answer is 9.7 times out of 10 the exact same phrase, regardless of major or interests or desired career path.
“I want to help people.” That’s awesome. I want to help people, too. And it led me here. Helping people is the best.But, here’s the thing, I could argue that practically anybody is in a helping profession. Here’s a list of people who have already helped me today:
The person that rang me up and handed me my breakfast sandwich this morning
Our front desk goddess who explained to me how leave time works
My fellow adviser who helped me take a look at some transfer credits
A SAPro in career services that clued me in to some great internships for students that I can recommend
The person at the craft store that helped me find the supplies I was looking for
Someone on YouTube that taught me a new crochet stich I’ve been struggling to master
You get the idea. “Helping” is a really, really, really vast concept. And this is just a list of people I had direct interaction with that helped me. I could expand this list to include the folks in agriculture that made it possible to eat that breakfast sandwich, and the people that founded UNL back in the 1800s, the businesses that decided to establish themselves locally to me so that I can have access to the amenities I need… so on and so forth.
So I push the conversation. Here’s the most common version:
Me: So, tell me about what you want to do with this major.
Student: I want to help people.
Me: That’s really admirable. How would you like to help them?
Student: What do you mean?
Me: Well, lots of people help other people. How would you like to help others?
Student: I don’t know.
Me: You’re not sure how to help people.
Student: Not really, I guess.
I have this theory that everybody actually wants to help people. I have yet to encounter a person, when asked, responds “Well, I don’t know what I want to do, but I definitely don’t want to help anybody. I need to do something that allows me to contribute to the world as little as humanly possible.” No matter what you get into, I’m confident in saying that most people don’t have that attitude. Maybe not everybody wants to have close interpersonal interactions with others to guide and shape learning and personal discovery, and that’s fine. We can’t all do that. Our society has a lot of needs to be filled.
So, in the brief amount of time I get to spend with students, I emphasize the difference between what they want to be and what they want to do. “Doctor” is a noun. “Heal” is a verb. In my however limited experience, students latch onto titles. They want to be a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer (we’ve also fooled them into thinking these are their most lucrative/productive/meaningful/legitimate options), but have no idea what they actually want to do or how their interests can combine into some really killer highly demanded skillset that’s going to prepare them to innovate their chosen field.
So a student latches onto a title and they often don’t understand how to be that thing. What does it take to become a doctor? And not just coursework and knowledge and internships, what does it take? What are the soft skills required to be able to be in that line of work? Do you have them now? Do they come naturally to you? Are you willing to gain them? Are you comfortable using those skills on a daily basis for your work? And if you’re not comfortable using those skills, or you don’t want to take countless math and science classes for the next several years, how else can you see yourself helping someone? How else have you been helped in your life that was meaningful? Can you see yourself in a similar role?
The very basic levels of career development that I dabble in are difficult. And that’s an understatement. To reframe the conversation this way is to attempt to undo a pattern of thought that has been ingrained in us since we were children. How often were we asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and expected to provide an answer along the lines of firefighter, veterinarian, teacher, doctor, and so forth? We weren’t asked what we want to do, or how we want to contribute, or what kind of mark we want to make. But it’s never too late to start asking, and sooner is better than later.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Danny Malave on New Professional Retrospective on the Job Search