There’s this thing that people say to kids like us – the bright kids, the ones who pack books in their suitcases when they travel and stay on the field hours after practice to perfect that one shot – and this thing, I think, might have ruined us: “I can’t wait to see what you’re going to be when you grow up.”
You’ve heard it, I bet. From a kindergarten teacher, a field hockey coach, a headmaster maybe. They mean it as a compliment, yet it sounds like a dare: Show me your cubicle in some towering granite monstrosity on Wall Street, your business pitch for a non-profit sure to change the world, your swivel chair at one of those Silicon Valley tech meccas with video games and beanbags in the office. Show me how you’re going to make it.
I’ve heard this question all my life, louder now in the years of internships and interviews, pantsuits and PowerPoint presentations. But here, in the fall of my senior year, I am going to advise my classmates and our younger peers to ignore it, to refuse to answer it, to put it as far out of your minds as possible.
There are two reasons for this radical advice: One, in the 21st century, chances are slim that this first job you’re hustling for is the one you’ll have forever, the one your kindergarten teacher will read about. Two, this wonderful four-year pause between adolescence and adulthood is likely providing you with the most authentic relationships you will ever have. Simply put, the person you are right now before you know what you’ll be when you grow up is one singularly worth knowing.
In 2010, The Wall Street Journal published an article called “Seven Careers in a Lifetime?” which stated that over 75 percent of people between the ages of 20 and 24 have been with their current employers for less than one year. In Forbes two years later, a piece entitled “Job Hopping is the ‘New Normal’ for Millennials” stated that the average worker only stays with one employer for 4.5 years. Meanwhile, a study by Future Workplace found that 99 percent of young people expect to stay in any given job for less than three years. Sheryl Sandberg, current corporate icon, argues in her speeches and recent book that the age of climbing the ranks at a single workplace is over: Instead, the modern career is “a jungle gym, not a ladder.” What this means is that these decisions matter, but not as much as we work ourselves up to think. These interviews are not, in fact, apocalyptic. Your first job may decide in which city you rent your first apartment and in which public transport system you get lost, but it will not decide your destiny.
What it will do, however, is drastically change the way in which you get to know those around you. If college is a cocktail party teeming with promisingly single people, then landing that first job is like showing up with a spouse. That job you’re hunting down on the Career Center’s Route 2 system won’t just be embossed on your first business cards. It will also be your answer to the first follow-up question everyone asks; it is, effectively, the framework within which people will come to understand you.
And in a way that is electrifyingly exciting: Emily Calkins, equity analyst does, after all, sound deceptively official. But that tagline comes at an awfully high cost. Right now, we are in this wonderful juncture where the prospects of our roommate becoming an astrophysicist and a movie producer are equally, and reasonably, probable: We could all still be anything “when we grow up.” Right now, when we describe a friend we admire, we say she’s a badass on the soccer field or an incredible baker (famous for inventing chocolate-chip-cookie-dough-stuffed cinnamon buns); that he secretly writes moving screenplays or visits Disneyland every year with his family; that they like hiking and do weekly brunch. We brag that they’ve got voices like Toby Keith or an uncanny way with a Rubik’s cube – we celebrate these quirks, and so they become the Christmas tree ornaments that adorn our most cherished friendships.
But soon, gel in hair and briefcase in hand, we won’t use those descriptors – we may not even care about them. Without mid-semester a capella concerts and home games, Storytime and colloquia, the things that excite us most about the people around us will surface later, if at all.
During a training session for my internship in finance last summer, we learned about what our instructor called “the extra comma.” That was his name for mojo, that x-factor, that je ne sais quoi that transformed an employee into a real asset, that gave their salary enough zeroes for the “extra comma.”
If I had to guess, I’d say that everyone I know here has that mojo. I’d also guess that the only reason I know that is because I knew them before the first comma. You know, the one between their last name and their first job title, the one that sits here: Emily Calkins, equity analyst. I know about a friend’s “extra comma” quality because I heard their first a capella solo, I peer-edited their paper on Pride and Prejudice, I fell on my ass learning to ski with them during a humiliating Winter Study P.E. class. For as long as we let it, Williams allows us to forget we are on the highway and encourages us to just be happy in the car.
So, Class of 2014, I hope you sign contracts and go to Ann Taylor for that first pair of business slacks.
More than that, I hope you put it off as long as possible.
Most of all, I hope that in 10 years you can say that you still sing your a capella solo in the shower and read that tricky Jane Eyre novel on vacation, that you do something as humiliating as learning how to Nordic ski each winter, that you still make time for snacks on Sunday nights. Because if you can, you will have never become “Who You’re Going to Be When You Grow Up.” You will have become someone a hell of a lot better.
Emily Calkins ’14 is an English and political science double major from Baltimore, Md. She lives on Spring Street.