As a parent, teacher, or grandparent, it is common to struggle with the question of how to share the wisdom we’ve acquired over the years, without telling the youth in our lives who they should be or the career path they should choose. It’s been my experience that telling a child what they should do or be in life, is a good way to ensure that they go in the opposite direction.
I was faced with this dilemma one afternoon while hiking in Oregon with a grandson. The rest of the family had fallen behind us, so we sat on a log next to the river to wait for them to catch up. I wanted to encourage him to embrace his passion in life. That thing he was born to do. The world is filled with messages that money and fame and possessions are the sources of happiness in life, and I wanted him to think about choosing a life of meaning…..not a life of wealth.
I decided the best way was to simply share the story of my life with him. I began my story with a life changing question that I was certain would engage him. I know, it was pretty lame. But it was all I could come up with at the time.
“So what do you want to be when you grow up,” I asked my grandson. He was heading into his senior year of high school and was excitedly thinking about college coming up the next fall.
Without hesitation, he said in a serious tone of voice “I want to be a drug addict and live on the streets.”
Like I said, it was a lame question.
“Seriously,” I said smiling.
He thought for a minute. “I think I want to be an engineer and make lots of money,” he said shaking his head confidently in the affirmative. He had obviously already given the question some thought. Apparently, I wasn’t the first person to ask him that question.
I took a deep breath. “Any other options”? I asked.
“Nope. My teacher in school said it was one of the best ways to earn a lot of money when I get older.”
It was definitely a deja vu moment that brought on a wave of sadness for me. That was the same answer I’d given my Uncle when he asked me that same question five decades earlier. It was a career decision I came to regret.
I thought for a moment. How should I respond to my grandson? I didn’t want to discourage him or give him the impression that I didn’t agree with his answer. On the other hand, I was concerned that he was setting himself up for the same disappointments in his life that I’d experienced in my own.
Should I be honest with him? Perhaps it would be best just to change the subject.
But that thought came with a sense of guilt. How could I simply let him travel down a road that I knew would probably bring him the same sense of failure that I’d felt so many years ago.
After a few moments of indecision, I decided to simply share my own experience with him and then let him make his own decisions.
I shared with him that I’d made the same choice when I was his age.
“Really!” he exclaimed. “I always thought you worked your whole life as a psychotherapist! Didn’t you”?
“Well, I started out getting a Bachelors Degree in Electrical Engineering. I even worked for General Motors and Singer Business Machines for ten years as an engineering project manager in their Manufacturing Engineering departments.”
“So how did you end up as a therapist? That’s a long ways from a career in Engineering!”
“Got that right,” I said with a chuckle. “I was doing pretty well financially, but I woke up one day and realized that I wasn’t happy. In fact, it felt like I’d just wasted ten years of my life. Thinking back, I guess you could say I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew it wasn’t Manufacturing Engineering. That’s when I left the engineering life and started homesteading.”
“Wow. From engineering to homesteading, that was a big change!” He exclaimed, then paused. “Didn’t you like homesteading?”
“On the contrary, I look back on those years as a time of birthing for me. Milking goats and working the craft show circuit as a silversmith gave me a lot of time to think about life and what I wanted to do with it. But I knew I didn’t want to go back to being a commodity….a production unit trading the years of my life for an hourly wage in some corporation”.
“I never thought about my career that way,” he said thoughtfully… “you know, the idea of trading my life as a commodity… for money.”
“I didn’t either at your age”. I said ending the life of a mosquito that was drinking from the back of my hand. “Our economic system encourages competition, greed, and getting ahead… a survival of the fittest kind of thinking. Over time, I realized I wanted to have more purpose and meaning in my life. I wanted to make the world a better place. I know that sounds pretty lofty, but I wanted to make a difference…..to add value to the lives of those around me. Today I believe we are born to embrace our life purpose and become the person we were born to become……and for me, that didn’t mean living my life as a commodity to be exploited by a corporation.”
We both sat in silence for a while and then I continued… “I left homesteading knowing I wanted to live a life of deeper meaning… intentional simplicity, contributing to the sustainability of our planet, adding value to the lives of others, and most of all, knowing that I had made a difference in the world.”
He asked quietly, “Did you?”
I smiled and said “Yup. I think I have…..and I’m still working on that goal. Guess I will be as long as I’m here on this planet. I love living a life that has meaning for me.”
I could hear the rest of the family catching up to us.
I stood up. Looked at him for a moment and then said “I hope you too can find that kind of meaning for yourself. Let me know if I can be of help on your journey.”
He stood up, gave me a hug, and said quietly “You already have. Thanks”
Then he took off running down the trail laughing with his younger brother hard on his heels.
He’s definitely a cool kid. I suspect he will do fine in life… and I have to tell you… I love being a grandparent.