5 pieces of advice for teens

Has anyone else hopped on the Gretchen Rubin train? I happened upon her book The Happiness Project a few months ago, and now I’m playing catchup with her podcast, Happier, which she records with her sister Elizabeth. I also just checked out her newest book, Better than Before, about how to effectively make and break habits. If you’re interested in habits, happiness, and psychology, she’s definitely worth checking out.

In one podcast episode, Gretchen and Elizabeth’s special guest was Gretchen’s 16-year-old daughter, Eliza. Listeners were invited to send Eliza some pieces of advice as she nervously entered her junior year of high school. As I thought about what I would say to a rising junior, I realized that almost everything that I felt needed to be said was related to successfully choosing a career in the future. So, here is my long-winded post (and some kittens) for all the Elizas.

  1. Get a job. Getting a job with a manageable schedule can be tricky for high schoolers. However, students are usually expected to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives when they’re 18 or younger; I personally knew a father who was distraught that his 15-year-old son didn’t have a career path already planned out. Holding jobs as a teenager, even waiting tables, will tell you so much about yourself. If you wait to start working till you get to college, your scholarship money and/or loans will already be on the clock. Time is money.

    I remember sitting in career counseling at the end of my freshman year of college, taking survey after survey to determine what the perfect job for me would be. I had such high hopes for what my time with the counselor would reveal, but I came away frustrated at the number of questions I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t know what kind of work environment I preferred, or how much I wanted to interact with the public, or if I would prefer mostly sitting or lots of moving. All I knew was school, and that wasn’t much to draw from. When all you do is sit in a desk for 12 years, how can you know what you’ll want to do in a different environment? A year or two later, after having two jobs completely unrelated to any career I was interested in, I could have pinpointed more: no desk job; some public interactions, but preferably one-on-one; etc. Without having worked during high school, though, I knew very little about how I would thrive as a worker.

  2. Job shadow… again, and again. When they’re interested in a career, most people spend a handful of hours observing someone who has an established career in that field. To get into my grad program, I was required to have a minimum of 40 hours observing OTs. Looking back, I think that was too little time. A student could easily spend a regular work week with one person at one location and technically knock out all their required hours without learning everything they really need to know.

    It’s important to know all the different settings you might work in within any given field and spend several hours in each, knowing that once you graduate, you’ll probably need to take any job you can get — whether it’s what you really wanted/feel familiar with or not. It’s also a good idea to continue to job shadow, even when the person you’re following says it isn’t worth your time. Do they have a “boring” day lined up, without any particularly interesting diagnoses? Go see if you still like it. Not every day will be unique and exciting. Are they done with the hands-on work and only have documentation left? Stay. That’ll be part of your job one day. You should also ask about how often people in this field need to come in early, continue working at home in the evenings, etc. You need to have an accurate picture of a career to know if it matches up with the life you want.

  3. Choose a career first and major second. My husband and I both found career advice in college to be lacking. Most of what we heard was that you should choose a major you’re interested in, and then find something to do with it. Unfortunately, with that approach, universities collect your money while you get a French degree for the love of the language, but with no real purpose. If you want to major in religion or philosophy or French, be my guest. I totally get why those would be fascinating majors. But if you don’t have a very specific plan for how you could use that degree, don’t do it! Which leads me to…
  4. Not every passion will turn into a career. There are lots of things in life I enjoy. I could spend hours looking at greeting cards. I love reading quirky/shmancy-sounding paint and nail polish color names. I could totally get into being an interior designer.

    These are legitimate careers for some people (designing greeting cards, anyway — not staring at them), so I’m not saying they’re completely frivolous and unrealistic. But as much as you might enjoy something, it may not be your career. And that has to start being okay. If you love history but don’t want to be a professor, build a life where you have time to read biographies and history books. If you love painting, build a life where you make time to paint. There are a lucky few people in the world who have one all-consuming passion, and they have found or created a job to fit exactly that. That’s amazing. But we have to recognize that that won’t be everyone, because we still need people who have the necessary skills to be plumbers and retail managers and phlebotomists — work that looks a little less glorious, but is truly indispensable.

  5. Your career will be work. If I had a kitten for every time I heard, “Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” I’d be a very happy lady.


    (I will forever die over my cat and his litter mates. And this isn’t even all of them!) 

    And yet, kittens don’t make up for the fact that this is complete nonsense. You might love your job — I hope you do! I hope the good outweighs the bad and that you can see yourself keeping it up till you’re gray (and beyond… I’m 26 and going gray). But if you talk to people who truly love their jobs, even the ones who spout this cliche, they can tell you that their job isn’t always sunshine and unicorns — even if they adore it, even if they created it themselves, completely custom just for their special interests. The reality is, even the best jobs have rough patches. It could be a rude client whose comments stay with you longer than they should. Maybe it’s a creative dry spell. Or maybe an adorable kid bites you at every opportunity. Eventually, there will always be something to take the magical edge off a job, even if just for the day, and because we live in a broken world, your work will sometimes feel like… work.

    In my experience, most people who love their jobs find a few things to be true: They’ve become knowledgable and competent at what they do, they have opportunities to improve themselves, their values aren’t being compromised, and they feel like they’re making a difference.

    Find a career that’s interesting and important; aligns with your natural skills, abilities, and values; and then spend your life continuing to cultivate your interest in it.


Oh, and don’t bother with boys yet. Your friends are a lot less confusing.

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