What do I say to people who ask me, “What do you want to do in the future?”

A student recently wrote to me, asking:

I have a few career goals, or at least I’m thinking of a few career options and have a sense of direction of what I want to do in the future. But I can’t pinpoint exactly which occupation. How do I tell ppl that? I’m fed up with relatives/friends asking: “What do you want do in the future?” Especially for most FASS majors, they assume you want to be a teacher. But when I reply that I’m not interested to be a teacher, they judge me like I have no clear goals, as if I’m just gonna be unemployed for the rest of my life.

How can I give them a good answer when I can’t pinpoint an exact career that I want?

This is my reply:

I FEEL YOU! I get that a lot too. Now, let me first start off by saying that you don’t need to get all your shit together now. It’s perfectly ok not to know what to do after graduation. In fact, if you feel lost and directionless, embrace that! I’d rather you be honest to yourself than to sign your life away to a scholarship or bond or contract to do work that you are clueless or directionless about.

In my time as an undergraduate, so many of my peers rushed to sign up as teachers not because they loved teaching, but because they just wanted to feel secure. “Iron rice bowl,” they all said. That is utter rubbish… They all hated their lives for the next 3 years. Some even broke bond in the end. And when the bond was over, they’re back to square one – having to ask themselves what they want to do with their lives. To date, some of these people still don’t know what they want, and they decided to just continue in teaching (even though they hate it so much). What a horrible way to live one’s life!

So, as a general comment to every student reading this: don’t sign your life away just because you want to avoid the discomforting question of what to do with your life. You are only delaying the inevitable problem with a temporary false sense of security. It will still come back to haunt you.

Ok, back to the question. When strangers, relatives, or acquaintances ask you, “What you wanna do in the future?” Most of the time, they aren’t asking that because they’re concerned about your well-being. No, they’re asking because they want to easily classify you in their heads. And if we’re honest, we also do this to other people. It’s a very lazy way of trying to understand people, as if their degree or (future) profession says enough about who they are. Well, it at least tells us whether to perceive of them respectably or not (which is not accurate at all). But that’s what we tend to do.

A lot of people have difficulties classifying those of us with general degrees (not just people from FASS, but science majors too). So when you say that you study something like Philosophy, they don’t know what you do in that major, or what you can do with it. So unfortunately, their poor lack of imagination is what leads them to conclude “teacher.”

If you want to be nice about it, you should at least use this as an opportunity to educate them about how your major has contributed to the world. If you don’t know the answer, you ought to read up more about it online. For example, if you asked me, I can tell you how almost every famous person who has made a major impact on our lives had previously studied Philosophy, and I can tell you how philosophy majors are making a difference in various sectors of the industries. If you can’t answer that for your own major, then please go do your own research – this will also give you ideas on the possible things you can do in the future.

I once was invited to be a judge at a tech competition. One of the judges was very salty when he heard that I studied philosophy. He mockingly asked, “What do you people have to contribute to this world?” And I told him, “We find problems that people like you have taken for granted and bring it to your attention, so that you can fix them. In other words, we are giving you things to do so that you can keep your job.” He kept quiet after that.

If you don’t want to be nice about it (because sometimes people ask these questions just so that they can compare you with themselves or their spawnlings), I make sure I don’t give them the satisfaction of classifying me into their stupid mental categories. So I’ll say things that are incredibly dissonant just to confound them. It is very satisfying to watch them struggle to process what they hear. For example, nowadays, I just tell people (usually very nosey people): “I teach philosophy and computing.” Often their brain hangs (usually accompanied by a funny facial expression) because they don’t know how to process it. And because they don’t know how to classify me anywhere in their heads, and because they don’t want to appear stupid, they just nod their heads in respect, and keep quiet (or change topic).

Anyway, let’s question the question! Isn’t it silly how the question about “What you wanna do in the future?” often demands an answer pointing to a very specific profession? In many ways, we’ve been conditioned by that same question back in kindergarten or primary school. And the responses were stuff like: firefighter, doctor, lawyer, accountant, police, engineer, teacher. It’s hard to answer this question in this day and age, because most of the jobs are office jobs dealing with all kinds of stuff. So instead of answering with a profession, you could respond by saying which sector of the industry you’d like to make a difference in: aviation, healthcare, education, finance, the arts, new media, etc.

So basically, if you decide to play nice and educate them about your major, when you tell them the sector you want to go into, you are giving them ideas to imagine how you’ll transform that sector. You can aid their imagination by giving them your own ideas on how you think you might be able to contribute with your FASS training.

Hope this helps! :)

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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