Exploring Possibilities for Identity Achievement
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
My 13-year-old granddaughter expressed distress that she didn't know what she wanted to do with her life. Starting high school, she was required to choose an occupational track that couldn't be changed easily. I was aghast! With everything we know about psychology and development, how can children be expected to make a commitment to a certain occupational field?
We need to teach children how to open themselves up to experiences. In high school, students need to have a variety of courses to help them learn about possibilities. Without such experience young people have less opportunity to find what is satisfying and fulfilling for them. Achieving an occupational identity isn't about having it identified for you at an early age. Nor should it limit you later on.
I didn't know I would be a psychologist in high school. When I didn't want to be a rock musician, I wanted to be a linguist—I wanted to learn languages and be a translator traveling the world. Even in college as a nontraditional student and mother of a young son I didn't know precisely what I wanted. It wasn't until my senior year when I was standing in the hallway talking with other psychology students about our future plans that I even knew I would apply to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Each student, in turn, said they were applying to graduate school and when they looked to me, I said, “Yeah, that's what I'm going to do, too” because I was embarrassed to say I wasn't certain.
Even while in graduate school I was more interested in becoming a researcher than a therapist. But then during my post-doctoral fellowship I experienced using cognitive-behavioral therapy with people who had severe anxiety disorders. Again, my path diverged from what I planned.
One thing, though, I was certain about was that I didn't need to worry about making a choice for life. I knew that I could do many things and didn't have to settle for just one career. In college I also minored in writing and wrote for the college newspaper because writing was always a love of mine. What's more, I never knew that my interest in technology and computer science would eventually allow all these interests to converge and create Excel At Life.
This path unfolded because one thing clear throughout was being open to possibilities. Being open means pursuing a path but then allowing yourself to consider side paths when they present. Through these experiences you allow yourself to discover the purpose for your life. You don't have to have it all figured out in advance. However, this also doesn't mean to let yourself drift without a plan and wait for something to present. Pursue your interests but remain open to the possibilities.
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