SINGAPORE: What do you want to be when you grow up?
It’s a loaded question we’re bombarded with from young. As soon as we understand the concept of a career, we are asked to pick one — just one — for supposedly the rest of our lives.
But what starts out as a fun mental exercise when we’re young becomes more existential as we get older.
On Monday (Jan 11) after the O-Level results are released, 16-year-olds will revisit the question in their minds, as they decide whether to head down the junior college (JC) or polytechnic route.
READ: Commentary: How to sabotage your child’s future – five dangerous notions about life, careers and education
Aside from understanding their preferred learning style, whether it’s an academically inclined JC environment or a hands-on approach in a polytechnic, they’re told this decision largely depends on the work they want to do in the future.
As 16-year-olds go, some will have a rough idea of their basic interests, skills and talents. Even fewer will know exactly what lights the fire in their belly.
They see with absolute certainty the career trajectory they wish to take over the next 10 years and the academic qualifications needed to get there.
Many, however, will fumble in quiet. They may not know what they want to be when they grow up, even after attending several JC and polytechnic open houses.
They may end up picking a course or a school because their peers do so or because their parents expect them to. They may resign themselves to the path of least resistance to placate their families.
And more unfortunately, they may feel shame for being lost or less sure about their future than their high-achieving peers.
YOUNG AGE, HIGH PRESSURE
Unlike at PSLE where grades seem to be the main deciding factor for the next step in education, the narrative around O-Level results no longer hinges on scoring good grades. Getting an excellent O-Level score isn’t enough — knowing what to do with it matters more.
But pressure by any other name is just as stressful.
Schools, teachers and counsellors — an entire ecosystem exists to be helpful to a young teenager in figuring out what might suit them.
Years before they even sit for the O-Level examinations, youth are already exposed to education and career guidance in secondary schools, such as having JCs and polytechnics invited to share their offerings and attending career talks conducted by alumni.
This knowledge is invaluable and even better if a friendly career guidance counsellor is on hand to help you uncover your true calling. The aim is altruistic — to match skills and talents so that money and time can be well-spent.
In the best of circumstances, it can also fuel ambition and drive, when we know clearly the path we want to take. Take the recent news about the 19-year-old polytechnic student running a US$25 million tech start-up.
Yet, this heavy, single-minded expectation to figure life out at that pivotal point implies our choice is somewhat cast in stone forever.
It also encourages an intrinsic relationship between career and our identity, where we’re expected to dedicate our lives to finding a singular professional purpose if we haven’t decided on a career that will determine our passions and pursuits.
In reality, our choice at this point in life is not a done deal, even if it feels like our entire life rests on this one decision.
ADULTS STILL DON’T HAVE IT FIGURED OUT
As a teenager on the precipice of making a decision after my O-Level results, I distinctly remember thinking, “I can’t wait to be an adult so I can feel sure about my life choices.”
The joke was on me.
Some adults remain miserable, because they’re stuck on a career trajectory they’re too afraid to change, or they’re constantly afflicted by a sense of wishing they could do something else.
Of course, many others lead happy and meaningful lives regardless of their jobs, because they’ve learnt to make the best out of what they have, even if they’re unsure about their calling.
A famous quote by English actor and writer, Stephen Fry, comes to mind:
Oscar Wilde said that if you know what you want to be, then you inevitably become it — that is your punishment.
But if you never know, then you can be anything. We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing — an actor, a writer. I am a person who does things — I write, I act — and I never know what I am going to do next.
I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.
It reminds me of my friends who’ve strayed from the paths supposedly dictated by their decisions they made at 16.
A friend, who was the valedictorian for his mass communication course in polytechnic, went on to practise law in university. He completely abandoned the media industry despite having done well in his diploma.
Another friend got into the science stream in a JC, studied geography in university and graduated with honours, and became a content strategist in a media agency.
Even among more well-known Singaporeans, switching careers is not unheard of. Chef Willin Low and fashion designer Ong Shunmugam, for instance, studied law once upon a time.
It’s increasingly common for adults to change careers and to land up in vastly different paths than the one they imagined for themselves when they were 16.
That’s even encouraged today in a world of disruption. They call this “career mobility”.
NOT THE DESTINATION, BUT THE JOURNEY
Not being fixated on a clear path after your O-Level results has its underrated benefits.
For one, not being chained to a projected career path that you chose at a young age, or that your parents and peers expected you to pursue, leaves you open to explore varied interests. From business to biology, art to architecture, this inadvertently cultivates a keen sense of curiosity.
It also teaches you how to fail or how to accept failure, when some interests inevitably don’t pan out or when you realise some personal passions make poor careers.
Having curiosity and resourcefulness, the ability to weather uncertainty, and the ability to find meaning and happiness that’s independent of professional success, is far more valuable than simply being sure about what you want to be as a teenager.
So perhaps, rather than expect 16-year-olds to have the next 10 to 20, or even five years of their lives figured out, we should normalise feeling clueless about what they want to do. Certainly never berate or belittle these feelings, but encourage them to use such sentiments to figure out what's next.
It’s wonderful if you know what you want to do from a young age. But few of us are Tiger Woods.
For those who haven’t got a clue, here’s a secret I’ve uncovered since becoming a working adult: Many of us, even the conventionally successful ones, are often winging it. We’ve taken many varied paths; some delightful, others dreary.
Some of us still wish we could do something different — but despite or because of how life hasn’t worked out the way we planned, it’s all the more interesting and meaningful.
And strangely, to end up with such a life beats any answer we could’ve given when we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up.
Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist at CNA Insider.
Listen to three working adults reveal how their PSLE results shaped their life journeys in a no-holds-barred conversation on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast: