“What do you want to be when you grow up” shouldn’t have a wrong answer.
If you have ever even considered pursuing a creative field, you know the look.
Maybe you first got it at seven years old, when you wanted to be like J.K Rowling or Frida Kahlo instead of an astronaut. Or maybe it was at 17, looking at music schools for college. You might have gotten it at 25, discussing your new photography job at Thanksgiving next to techy cousins.
For anyone not familiar, the look is what you get whenever someone asks what your goals and aspirations are and your answer isn’t STEM-related. The asker looks simultaneously disappointed and concerned. It’s as if they pity you for not pursuing a field they classify as realistically “successful.”
You’ve probably gotten pretty used to hearing things like “what do you want to do with that?” and “you know you won’t make much money, right?”
“What do you want to be when you grow up” doesn’t have a wrong answer, so why do people keep acting like there is? Your friends in nursing or engineering programs deserve nothing but respect, but their paths are not more valid than yours.
My own first memories of the look are from middle school, when my career-research presentation about becoming an author seemed to negatively stand out against those with “legitimate” aspirations. I was one of those artsy kids once upon a time, and still am. From a young age, I consumed books like oxygen, filled up journals and started writing my own stories. My writing consistently earned high marks in school, so I figured it was something I could pursue into adulthood (even though grades are a poor tool to predict futures, but that's a whole other discussion).
What happened next is unfortunately a similar story to most fellow creatives. After entering high school, I was pressured by the school system to choose a career path that made more sense, earned more money and included concrete steps to “success.” I remember my musically talented peers being told that they would almost certainly change their major in college because that wasn’t a valid path, either.
All young people dread conversations about college and the future, but for creative kids, these conversations can be full-on anxiety-inducing. It becomes the norm to start mincing your words to avoid judgment. Or worse, you may begin doubting yourself enough to trade in your passions for a “sensible” career path. And for the young people in as many AP and Honors courses as you can handle: just because you’re good at math doesn’t mean you have to ignore your natural talent for art.
I’m here to tell you to ignore the discouragement and – there isn’t a non-corny way to say it – follow your heart. Keep making art in all its forms, apply to those schools and programs, chase down internships, and build the name for yourself that you know you deserve.
Have your cliché Disney Channel Original Movie “You're giving up on your dream/No Dad, I’m giving up yours” moment.
You’ll face internal conflict in addition to the constant questioning from parents, overbearing guidance counselors, and nosy family friends. You’ll compare yourself to friends that move into the library cramming for exams, as if your own caffeine-fueled late nights with procrastinated projects are insignificant.
Your friends in STEM are there because they care about their field – don’t worry about them, worry about you.
Things won't just magically fall into place, but if you're genuinely putting in work you'll find that it's entirely possible to meet goals and achieve prosperity equal to STEM careers. It’s on this path that you’ll likely find your people, too; Those who accept you, make you feel most yourself, and not to mention help network you to useful contacts.
I know you just want to prove everyone wrong and make a living out of what you love. I hear you, but make sure that spite isn’t your only driving force. Remember why you started and where your true values lie. Use that mind of yours to plan, build connections, and make shit happen.
I struggle to this day with doubts about whether I chose the right path as a Communications major. Whenever someone asks what I’m studying, I have to make a conscious effort to not revert back to a timid teenager, embarrassed about straying from what grown-ups told me was the best path.
But I know 10-year-old me and her stories about cats with superpowers is really proud. I thought about her when I first read my own writing in my university newspaper. I thought about her when I drove home from the first day of my first real internship the day after I turned 21.
There are feasible opportunities out there that will springboard you into the career people told you was impractical; chase those opportunities for the little kid who wanted to write, or dance, or paint, or make movies.
The importance of STEM professions is glaring in 2020 especially; without scientists and doctors over the past few months, I might not be around to write this and you might not be around to read it.
But the effects of the arts have been felt by society more than ever this year, too. Quarantine gave us new music from Luke Combs and Lady Gaga, and there were Rolling Stones and Coldplay concerts in our living rooms. Journalists and photographers have been covering essential news nonstop. Artists are churning out content to fuel movements like Black Lives Matter. Doctors are keeping people in this world, but creative minds keep adding beauty to it. Whatever it is that you have to offer is just as significant as everything STEM brings to the table.
So in case anyone hasn’t told you today–or ever–be whatever the hell you want when you grow up.
Next time someone asks you what you want to be, tell them, “happy.” See what look they give you then.