October 18, 2010 | File under: Advice and Lessons • Materialism • Society and Pressures • Well-being
Career perceptions are largely a function of one’s environment. The setting in which a child is raised profoundly shapes their understanding of how the world “works” and causes them to view certain lifestyles or values as inherently good or bad. Or, if certain characteristics are not distinguished as either good or bad, they are accepted as just the way that something “is” in any particular environment. These influences inevitably factor into how people perceive careers as enablers that will help them to achieve the lifestyle to which they aspire. In this way, one is careared from an early age to view certain careers as desirable for the monetary benefits they offer, not necessarily for the day-to-day tasks involved in the performance of such jobs.
I grew up in an affluent suburb in the South. Growing up in suburbia can be like living in a self-contained bubble. My world was defined by the ten-mile radius to which I had become accustomed, broadened only by the few places I had visited and the “realities” I witnessed on television. Within that small world, I was surrounded by indicators of wealth and materialism. Everyone I knew lived in a relatively large house with a neatly trimmed lawn. I bought new clothes at the Gap every season so I could keep up with the latest styles at school. Most households owned one shiny car for every driver in the family as well as at least one television for every person in the house. During school vacations, most people took a vacation to the beach or some other faraway destination. I came to view these things as normal and expected I would always have access to these luxuries in my life, assuming I made the “right” choices in the future. I thought having these things would make me happy.
In school, the need to achieve the same standard of living through my educational path and eventual choice of career was reinforced. I remember focusing on getting into a prestigious college as early as middle school, and my good grades showed promise that I would excel in life and find a “good” job as an adult. “Good” at the time equated to a job with the highest potential for monetary reward and social caché, which go hand in hand. I looked to those people I knew with such jobs and saw that their families seemed to have everything one could want —- all the right gadgets, the top brand luxury cars, and the designer handbags I lusted over as a teenager. On a very superficial level, these people seemed happy. If I did everything right and continued on my path to success, I thought, my life would be easy. Yes, I was extremely naive, but sadly no more than was normal.
I carried my warped view of happiness and success with me through college and graduate school even though I was no longer living in that same suburban community. Despite my broadening perspective, the affluence that surrounded me growing up continued to serve as the benchmark for the standard of living I wanted to achieve. At that point, the notion of success I had formed as a child was so deeply ingrained in my psyche that its momentum propelled me through each choice I made, leading up to my fateful choice to become a lawyer —- a choice I believed was proof that all my hard work would eventually pay off by securing the lifestyle to which I had always aspired.
Be careful what you wish for. I got everything I wished for, which turned out to be nothing that I came to want. I was a lawyer, one of those “good,” well-respected professions that promised to earn me the affluence I valued growing up. But I hated all of the details of the job, which I of course neglected to really evaluate when I bounded headfirst towards my career. All those years that I had been commended in school for earning good grades and progressing along the “right” path toward success led me to a place where no amount of luxury or material wealth could make up for the fact that I was utterly miserable. I berated myself for being so foolish to believe the siren call of affluence would be the key to the rich and satisfying life I desired. I was careared and felt lost.
My experience is certainly not unique. Many people choose their paths in life based upon the realities they observe growing up. It’s only natural to emulate the actions of people who exhibit qualities one desires for oneself. But in an environment in which material wealth is so ubiquitous and achievements are defined by one’s ability to keep up with other’s accumulation of “things,” it’s hard for young people to disassociate success from its monetary component. It’s only possible for this illusion to be broken by the realization that success can only be defined in relation to each individual’s unique conception of a fulfilling life —- which often is only marginally related to money.