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Resolving the career issue

AS WE come to the end of another year, we are probably all ready to set our thinking straight and put ourselves on the right track (whatever that might be!) in the various things we do. If you are a parent, particularly of a tenth or twelfth-grader, uppermost on your list of worries is your ward's future. What choices should they be making? What should you advise them to do, what courses to take? From talking to parents and children, one difference becomes clear in their approach to making these choices. Parents look at career choices (and planning for them) in terms of financial and job security. Children look at the future in terms of opportunity and excitement. The problem with both these approaches is that they base decisions on externalities: What are the spaces available in the market? What is needed to fill them? What courses should I take to mould myself in that shape? What do I have to do to meet the existing criteria of success in these areas? These are worthwhile questions, no doubt. But as parents, do we want our children to simply lead pragmatic and secure lives or to do something that they enjoy, that they are good at, and can make a difference doing? How many of us ask our children to think carefully about what they want to do, and then empower them with the knowledge of all possible choices they can make? When we think about it, most of us live very limited lives — our everyday activities are bounded by a set routine, we meet certain kinds of people, who all pretty much do similar things. We blind ourselves — and therefore our children — to the tremendous opportunities that exist outside our own known worlds, or even in undiscovered spaces within them.

Two recent conversations come to mind, both with parents whose children are on the brink of making such choices. One child was almost automatically directed into the math-science stream with the intention of seeing him through the competitive engineering entrance examinations. When he was six months into the 11th class, he had the courage to tell his parents he just couldn't go through with it as he hated the subject. His parents moved him into the commerce stream, where he is now doing very well. His mother, however, confesses, "I am still somewhat disappointed that he would not go through with the preparation for engineering...somehow that was always taken for granted.'' Whatever her own feelings, she did make the (perhaps correct) decision to let her son follow his own heart. The other parent is in the process of helping her child make that decision. At this point everything is an opportunity, and the child (like most of his peers in high school) does not really have a strong drive to do one thing or another. Our education system, unfortunately, does not look kindly on such indecision, and forces a choice at the ridiculous age of 15 or 16. The parents are looking at fields such as finance and bio-informatics as possibilities, because "he does need to do something that will allow him to live a comfortable life''. So that becomes the overarching concern, to find a career path that will guarantee financial solidity.

There is nothing wrong in wanting our children to be financially secure or to desire that they lead materially comfortable lives. But to make that the central concern of a career choice might be problematic. The choice of a career or a vocation must come instead from reflection, from exploration, and from an understanding of what one is, what one can do best, and how one can contribute. One school principal recounted a meeting with a student who came to tell her that she was going to study aeronautical engineering. While appreciating the child's resolve, the principal asked, "Why exactly do you want to study that''? Forced to think a little more carefully about her decision, the child said, "No one ever asked me that!'' There may be many answers to that "why" question, and all of them may be satisfactory at one level or another. But the point is, the question must be asked, and the child encouraged to answer, honestly, and thoughtfully. We can help our children discover answers to their own "what'' questions about a career, by beginning with the "whys'', and then by going back to what should be our own central concern as parents and teachers-our children, their interests and aptitudes, and their potential to contribute as members of society.

Usha Raman

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