You’ve likely heard the concept of self-determination being thrown around at different points throughout your life. Self-determination is your ability to seek your destiny without influence or control from others. The concept suggests that you should have the right and freedom to make your own choices that might lead you to live the life of your dreams. Imagine poor Herbie from the classic Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer cartoon (and if you haven’t seen this classic, then you should definitely find it online before going to college!). All of Santa’s elves thought he should make toys, but Herbie just wanted to be a dentist. We can all agree that Herbie should have the freedom to pursue dentistry, and that the elves of the North Pole should have access to quality dental care. You’d think that they could work out a compromise.
We all have friends who, running into a significant social obstacle have wallowed in self-pity. “I just want to be accepted for who I am… pout, moan, gripe!” Self-determination is not simply doing what you want to do in spite of what other people think. It’s not just Herbie opening up his dental practice, but rather it’s the ability to balance what you want to do with the information you collect from your experiences and those around you. Herbie could get together with Santa and the elf Union to work out how to make sure that the toys get made, while also offering dental benefits to the other elves, which in turn fulfills his dream. You didn’t expect discussion of elf-teeth when you opened this book, did you? Still this is an illustration of a process called dynamic determination.
Of course, dynamic determination starts with your aspirations. What is it that you have always wanted to do? What do you love doing? What can you imagine doing every day for the rest of your life? Not everyone is born knowing they want to be a dentist or a firefighter. In fact, many people enter college having no idea what they want to do. This is totally fine, but more often than not, these people are contemplating what they want to do versus what they think other people want them to do.
For example, there are countless people who know they absolutely love to dance, but someone in their life has convinced them that they will never make a living being a dancer. This may be true and the information that they’ve gathered is that they are not good at dancing. Nevertheless, passion for dancing does not require actually dancing to earn money. There are plenty of roads that will allow someone to express their passion while still make a living. And, they can still dance every day. Even for those of you who always wanted to be a something completely unrealistic (say, one of Santa’s elves), there is still hope for you. The first step is knowing what you love; don’t argue about reality just yet.
Once you have determined your passion, and yes you have a passion, you need to explore everything about it. What can you do with it? What are the jobs that support this passion? What are the jobs related to this passion? Beyond actually dancing, a person passionate about dance could explore dance history, costume design, choreography, stage management, video production, dance journalism, or dance therapy. So, while Herbie the Elf could be a dentist, he could also by a dental hygienist, lab technician, dental care educator, administrative assistant in a dental office, a dental lobbyist in Washington DC, or he could make toys that teach children to brush their teeth.
When most people who want to act go to Hollywood, they take jobs that support actors. They hold lights, get water for directors, do makeup, act as stunt doubles or act in small productions. They are networking and improving their resumes. Very few of those people become stars, but most of those people find something that they are passionate about that is related to acting. This is the time and opportunity for you to explore all of your options and then determine what is your best direction.
This is where all of the previous skills we have discussed come together. You need to have the awareness to know enough to evaluate your best fit. You need to understand your ability for regulation enough to be honest about the emotional toll of a given career and whether you can handle it. You need to value your path and know that your eventual career will be aligned with your expression. If you are terrible at reading and writing, get bored easily, and hate wearing suits, then being a lawyer will probably be miserable for you. But pay attention to the biggest picture lesson. Maybe you aren’t suited to being a trial attorney, but there may still be a career related to the law that will match your passion.
Let’s return, for a moment, to significant folks in your life who tend to push their dreams for your life with a consistently heavy hand. For many of you, you are surrounded by people who have strong opinions, very strong opinions (and significant investment) about what you should do with your life. Whether this is fueled by your parents’ desire to get you out of their basement and keep you out of their basement for life, or someone who sees the talents that you don’t. They possess incredibly useful information. Those folks will force you to take off your adolescent hat and ask some adult questions with an open mind.
Test your awareness! If your Dad thinks you should be a dentist, ask him to explain what talents he sees in you that would make you a good dentist. Not just saying that it’s a good living. If your best friend absolutely thinks you should be a comic book artist, ask them to explain what they see in your art that they love. If your teacher doesn’t think you should be a video game designer, ask her what characteristics she thinks wouldn’t be a good fit for that career.
Once you’ve exhausted exploring the intentions of those around you with strong opinions, move on to asking people who know you well without opinions. It’s a simple question and you’ve probably heard it many times: What do you think I should be when I grow up and why? Use all of this information. In fact, you should write it down in a notebook, so you can deeply reconsider these beautiful nuggets and determine their relevance. Your ability to balance your dreams with the educated information of others and a dose of reality about yourself will ultimately lead you to successfully seek your true destiny. And if you are still undecided, you can always make toys, like Herbie the Elf.