When I was seven years old, my first grade teacher asked everyone to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. I remember walking around my classroom, learning all about my classmates’ long-term aspirations. Not surprisingly for this Manhattan private school, it was a room full of aspiring astronauts and baseball players.
I and all of my classmates grew up and became members of the generation often referred to as Generation Y, sometimes referred to as “Generation Why?” in reference to our supposed apathy. A new nickname came about circa 2008: Generation O. This was due to the Obama election, which galvanized my generation into action, into a state where we finally believe that Change with a capital “c” is possible.
While it feels like many of my peers are awakening from a slumber of video games and reality television to suddenly confront the possibility of societal change, they are simultaneously realizing that the space for them to throw elbows is surprisingly limited.
Economic Depression and Lack of Direction
My generation was raised with parents and teachers telling us we could be whatever we wanted to be when we grow up. Yet, when twenty-somethings enter the workforce today they have limited options. Those who grew up aspiring to sports stardom or wishing to travel the stars may now be settling for unpaid internships. There simply isn’t room in this economy for the notion that if you work hard enough, you can do anything you want to do. With the scarcity of opportunities in the job market more and more young people are becoming discouraged and looking for any work they can find.
On top of that lack of opportunity there is the fact that most of us twenty-somethings still haven’t decided what we want to be when we grow up. When I talk to my parents now about the goals they had for my time spent in college they basically refer to it as a holding pen wherein I was given the opportunity to mature a little before I was allowed to live on my own. No more is a top-notch university considered a place where you pick your career and train in that area so as to graduate and get a job. That’s what graduate school is for, although today more and more individuals are extending their masters programs into Ph.Ds partly because they feel they need to in order to get that dream career going.
I was at dinner with my friend Laura the other week. I was talking about my new book; she about her impending graduation from social work school. Both of us felt on the cusp of something career-like but we had to pause and acknowledge that this year was the first time in our lives we had really revisited that old idea of “what do you want to be when you grow up.” We started mapping out the trajectories for all of our mutual friends. They too had hit their late 20s and were all of a sudden scrambling to figure out what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives.
It occurred to me that given the current educational and economic situation in the United States, maybe the question of what you want to be when you grow up is outdated. Perhaps a better question for the thoughtful young person of today would be “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”
Developing a Personal Intention
In Buddhism, the term mandala can be viewed in some respect as a sort of organizational chart. Within the center of several concentric circles is a certain lineage figure or deity that one might meditate on. In the secondary circle that surrounds that deity could be its emanations or various aspects of the deity. Surrounding that is another layer of beings, then another, and so on, until all sentient beings are represented.
I mention the mandala principle because I believe we all create our own personal mandalas, often without even realizing it. At the center of the mandala is your own personal intention. Perhaps your chief motivation in life is to make a lot of money. If that is at the center of your mandala your next circle out likely involves long nights at the office, making sure your superiors know how hard you are working, and other activity that aims to promote you up the ladder and pay scale in your chosen profession.
I don’t mean to sound judgmental if you are someone who lives with this motivation at the center of your mandala. However, I feel like many people in my generation have chosen different personal intentions. Some might be the very ambitious “saving the world” or perhaps a humbler “being kind” or “generosity.” Frankly, I am of the belief that these are the sorts of intentions that can right our society.
Good Intentions Can Right a Society
Imagine a world where an entire generation took a motivation like wanting to be generous, making that the center of their mandala. With generosity at the center of all of their activity this group of individuals spends their time not on how to make the most money or gain the most fame but instead they come up with new ideas on how to give their time, energy and money back to their local communities. They decide to be generous with their friends and family, who are in turn inspired to be more giving because of their example. They live their working hours with an air of generosity, constantly offering to help colleagues and take on additional projects.
Now imagine instead that they all take as the center of their mandala the idea that they simply want to be genuine. I believe that many of these individuals would rise in the ranks of their companies. People tend to be impressed when someone is truly genuine or generous and respond positively to it. Furthermore, when you are genuine with yourself, you are more able to discern how you want to spend your time; you quickly figure out which course of education feels best to you or what work opportunities will support you in how you want to live your life.
Over time, this generation of genuinely generous people might end up running these same corporate structures they may at one point have not been too fond of. However, because they live their lives in a way that makes sense to who they want to be they end up creating true change within their community. That sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it?
If this imagined mandala is to ever become a reality, then I call upon members of my generation to look not just for a profession which might make you happy but also contemplate who you want to be as you get older. What are the core values you care about, as opposed to a profession you think might be suitable?
If my generation, Generation O, took on this simple question we would not squander years trying to find the “perfect job” or the “perfect position” within a company. We would discern what is important to us and live all aspects of our life in line with that core intention. We wouldn’t all be astronauts or athletes but we would be who we want to be, and by doing that we would ultimately create that Change with a capital C.
—Portrait of a young business man courtesy of Shutterstock