The teens, 20s and 30s – changing ambitions and the pursuit of happiness

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What is the earliest time that you remember having given a thought towards your career choice in life? At the end of high school? While choosing a college to join? Or earlier than that? Most of us start thinking about careers in our teens. Lately I have been thinking about how career choices and ambitions progress and change in our lives from teens to, now the 30s and I have plotted a trajectory for the same.

Disclaimer : I don’t think this happens to everyone. However I do know a lot of individuals who identify themselves with this trajectory so far! Do let me know your thoughts 🙂

“What do you want to do when you grow up? Do you want to be a doctor like your daddy or a teacher like your mom?”

These kinds of questions begin early in our lives, at least here in India. As early as age 5 maybe? They begin at a time when we as kids are absolutely incapable of understanding what growing up and doing something professionally actually means. Yet, these answers are important. We as kids were all forced to make up our mind and give an answer to this question. Not all little children take these questions very seriously at age 5 probably; but as they enter primary and secondary school, this question is asked too often. That is probably the age where most of us began to think about what to do in life. Ambitions about careers are very easy and straightforward when we are little – we want to be the superhero that we see in our lives. A doctor who stitched back your torn skin when you fell while playing, a teacher who teaches you the essentials in life, a brave soldier who fights for your country, a talented scientist who discovers the cure to a disease, an astronaut who roams about the universe as if it were his or her backyard are some examples. Till sometime around primary school, most school children dream of becoming some such superhero that they have taken a liking to.

Of course this fascination is temporary and as we progress into higher grades in school; we start having some realizations. That there are some things that we like more over the others. And somewhere in this process, we learn to create dreams that are specific to our interests. An active teenager bubbling with newly found (and often screwed up!) perspectives of the world feels the sky is the limit and is often impulsively drawn to careers. Most of us, knowingly or unknowingly base our initial decisions of higher studies on the subjects that we like the most in school. In teenage, various other facets of careers are also considered which include – the popularity of the career, time required to complete higher studies, the money associated with the job, the glamour and fame quotient of the job, history of the job in the family (some are intensely drawn to their family jobs while others show a complete repulsion) and the overall satisfaction quotient of that career for yourself. We enter colleges as teenagers with dreams of excelling in the courses that we picked. This is essentially the first construction of a rudimentary career dream that we start chasing.

Come the 20s and we have moved out of college and entered the real professional world. The difference between these two starts to hit you. We begin to evaluate various aspects of the career choice that we have been thinking about. This includes the feasibility of the job based on the skills that you possess, ease of settling down in this career, the growth of monetary gains in this career and of course the importance of work culture and co-workers. This is often reality check no. 1 for us in our career lives. Some of us realize early on in this stage itself; that a career change is needed and that this field may not work out for us! For the others, we realize that there is a whole spectrum of different things that you can potentially do in the same kind of career, and we become conscious about choosing our comfort niche. The depths and variations of different kinds of work become clear and we define goals towards a particular aspect of our career. The 20s are probably the time where you feel most energetic and ambitious about navigating through your career path. A new dream emerges which has some more professional definition as compared to what you dreamt during college. Meanwhile life on the non professional side of life also begins to get somewhat more responsible now as we progress through the 20s. Most of us make important decisions such as whether to spend your life by yourself or with a partner; which country to live in for life and so on. We often try to align these personal life decisions with our professional goals in this quest for dream fulfillment. And for most of the fortunate ones, this alignment happens quite smoothly. Career paths are quite set and happiness is on the way.

Then the 20s come to an end and we have spent a substantial amount of time in a particular kind of work. Now is the time to scale up on your career. We start a different kind of evaluation now. This new evaluation is comprised of measuring all that you need to re-prioritize as you plan to go up on your career ladder. E.g. a promotion in your late twenties has resulted in you becoming a manager from a technician post. Way back in your early 20s, this seemed like the dream progress card of your life. Something that you were longing to achieve since you started this job; and which felt like your ultimate key to happiness. But by the time you reach there you are close to touching 30s and reality check no. 2 in life strikes you. Taking this position might mean a lot more work pressure, staying away from family, not being able to see your parents for long and for some unfortunate ones, not even seeing your country for very long. It also probably means less time for weekend footballs. It also means postponing getting married or having babies because you probably won’t have much time now. It also means having to reschedule your vacations quite often. It also means putting up with the senior nooks more often now! Although these are technically very small issues to live with; if they all accumulate they lead to a collapse of your internal peace. Now it comes to you in a different perspective. Are you willing to give up what it takes to reach there? Or would you rather take a different trajectory? Or do you need to settle out other fronts in life and then take steps up your career path? Probably yes. You need to re prioritize and attempt really hard to strike a balance.  Basically this is the time when you realize that no professional success comes without a price. And you need an evaluation of yourself to understand if you are willing to pay these prices. Sometimes I feel entering the 30s makes you aware of different facets of your planned career path that you were unable to notice in your 20s. And that’s why this cross road of life necessitates some looking back and doing the necessary upgrades to your dreams or to your current life. Sometimes you need to make changes to your career paths itself, or sometimes you need to make changes to your everyday life. Either ways, we become aware that some kind of change or up-gradation is essential to maintain the balance in life. Do that kind of upgrade to your attitude, personality and decisions and you will probably get back on your happiness track in life.

I have seen that we feel the need to upgrade our ambitions in life based on three main kinds of reasons – 1) your self evaluation in your 20s itself was rudimentary and biased resulting in you choosing a career without complete thought into how it would be in the future 2) the current job you are doing is not enough to give you a full satisfaction feeling about life. You want to do more. E.g. You may want to do theater professionally along with your job as a finance manager. Some of us develop a desire to excel in more than one forms of work and feel like pursuing more than one passion with equal intensity 3) your priorities in life may have undergone changes due to family, unexpected financial crisis, natural calamities and your current job structure is not able to cater to the needs of your new priorities.

The ambition upgrades may come from any of reasons 1-3 or even a combination of these. In such a case, how wise is it to update your ambitions in your pursuit of happiness? I think it’s perfectly okay.

I don’t know if it’s just me or do these kinds of reality checks hit everyone? Or is it just my over analytical mind that gets myself into these conundrums? Today when I think back upon all the career related decisions taken over the last decade and half of my life, I realize that they were based on very pertinent dreams that I had seen at that particular time. However what is coming out glaringly now is that some of the dreams that I saw in my 20s are not that exciting anymore. I don’t wish to belittle any of my own ambitions, past or present. But there definitely is no denying to the fact that my dreams need an upgrade depending on what stage of life I am in. It would be a futile exercise to latch on to old dreams and adamantly chase them simply because at one stage in life this dream seemed like the ultimate thing to achieve in this world. What matters more is how relevant is everything now? Does your current pursuit of happiness include this dream?

I wish to point out a fine distinction between a revision of ambitions and compromises. Whenever I have discussed this aspect with a variety of people, the very first response is often ‘Yes as you grow into your 30s and have other issues in life, compromising on career is necessary’. No it’s not compromise or the more noble word – “sacrifice” that I am talking about here. I am talking about an active redoing and revamping of one’s career path that is a consequence of conscious prioritization and self evaluation. The larger picture in life is always a pursuit of happiness. A pursuit of your career dreams is one part of it. For a large number of people, these two completely overlap. But for most of us, after about a decade of being in the pursuit of career dreams; we begin to see facets which are also a contributory factor to our bigger pursuit of happiness. And, as I complete three decades of existence on the Earth in this month, it is these realizations that are coming too often to me. Will spending another decade again lead to a necessity of upgrades when we stand at the entry to the 40s? Maybe yes. Because this decade of 30s is going to be one big churn up of new beginnings, new issues, financial concerns and what not!

So will I continue to have this introspective feeling about my ambitions every few years? I guess yes. Because life around is going to change. A lot of un anticipated changes are going to creep in. We are going to lose stuff, and also gain stuff. In such an ever changing world, isn’t it wise to also allow ourselves to update our ambitions if the need be? I am not forcing anyone here to keep changing things every 10 years. No, definitely not. In fact I have a lot of super focused friends who have picked and planned their career trajectories with such diligent thoughts, that these issues will never bother them. All I am saying is if the need be, give yourself the allowance to do so. Don’t kill yourself over dreams that, due to whatever reasons, don’t give you as much happiness anymore. Allow yourself to acknowledge the context and build up dreams that are more pertinent to your present state!

So what is my bottom line here? It is simple – If you necessitate a change in your career paths or lifestyle to achieve happiness in your life, allow yourself to do it. Because the realizations that we get through age and experience are important. And ignoring them might get our out-dated desires fulfilled but will leave happiness way behind. Because all said and done, the pursuit of happiness is the greater interest for us in life. Wouldn’t it be more peaceful for us to keep our ambitions negotiable with our age and accumulated wisdom rather than being adamant and keeping the happiness itself negotiable?

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