When I was in high school and I met with my guidance counselor, I told her that I wanted to be a teacher. This wasn’t out of a passion for education, for children, or any of the reasons people should have to become teachers. It was the only job where I knew what it looked like.
“You can’t be what you can’t see.” This pithy phrase is most often used when talking about representation of people of color, women, LGBT people, in popular media and in high powered positions. I don’t mean to detract from that important work. I sometimes see it also in regards to vision boards and The Secret , about the importance of visualizing your goals so that you can actualize them. You can’t be what you can’t imagine.
Right now I am looking for my first post-college job. A real job, one that will lead to a career. Frequently, I find myself reading job descriptions and it feels like reading in a language I took for one semester. In these job descriptions, I’m familiar with the industry buzz-words (oh yes, that means finance and brutally long hours). I understand to some extent what role these companies and their employees play in the economy, in their communities, in the financial system. But what happens inside everyday?
My mom is a teacher. I see her make lesson plans, see her prepare books and games, see her grade quizzes. I know what a classroom looks like (having learned in one), how a middle school cafeteria works (having eaten in one), what a public school schedule is like (having lived according to one). I understand the flow and content of her day and while I do not have the necessary training and skills to be a teacher right now, it is easy for me to visualize how I might be a teacher, following those routines in those spaces.
My dad works in finance. I see him on his laptop when the weather forces him to work from home, listen to him use unfamiliar acronyms with abandon. He makes a lot of phone calls and has video meetings at odd hours. I have been to his old office; there was a vending machine and a foosball table. I understand what time he leaves home and what time he comes back, but I do not at all understand what happens during the day. What does he do? What is he responsible for? I cannot visualize myself doing something that I do not understand.
There are some jobs that the general public has a good understanding of what they do; these jobs usually require interacting with said public. Bank tellers, supermarket cashiers, firefighters, teachers, taxi cab drivers, some nurses, receptionists, waiters, postal workers, garbage men. We see them on TV, we seem them in our lives regularly. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to envision their daily routines and responsibilities and how our life might be in that job.
But office jobs? High-paying elite jobs? I have no idea. Surgeons, lawyers, politicians, engineers, accountants, CEOs, scientists. What are their daily routines? (Of course, ~every day is different~). I know that surgeons perform surgery, but that’s not their whole day every day. I know senators go to the senate and speak and vote, but that’s not their whole day ever day. What does science really look like?
Internships are supposed to solve this problem by exposing you to different workplace environments, showing you how an office or research lab or campaign trail or …. works. In Europe this is done much better, exposing high school students to different work environments in short bursts, before committing further. Meanwhile, I’ve worked three summer-long internships in very specific environments. And despite my experience in some different offices, I still feel very limited in my powers of visualization. Of course, every specific job has a period of transition as you get used to that specific company and office, but that doesn’t nearly explain the lack of knowledge about the details and daily happenings of high-paying jobs. This is an even bigger problem in low-income communities where young people may not know any engineers, lawyers, teachers, etc. (This is where mentorship and education access come in).
Despite what I initially told my high school guidance counselor, I did not go to school for teaching. Instead I got hooked on another very specific word: economist. I wanted to be an economist. And when my relatives asked “What exactly does an economist do?” I had no answer for them. I had no idea. But I also had no idea what a surgeon does, what a politician does, what an engineer does. I just liked some of the things I had come to associate with the title of economist.
In this time of transition for me, I’m trying to do a lot more visualization of all aspects of my future life. This has included a lot of Googling buzzwords from job descriptions and talking to my parent’s friends about their work. But if I’m going to have my dream job, I have to know what it looks like. I can’t dream about, I can’t be it, unless I can see it.