The opportunity cost of not knowing what you want to be when you grow up

Most of us have met one, and I know I have certainly been one myself. An insecure teenager, too interested in too many things, and not sure what I want to do or be when I grow up. The pressure of deciding the right thing is crippling. What if we do it wrong? How do we know what is the right choice when we don’t have that much experience out in the real world? But the opportunity cost of choosing wrong just to chose something can be even greater.

I was one of those teenagers who had no idea of what I wanted to be. Everything was an option, and so nothing stood out.

I wanted to be a gardener, an artist, a baker, a chef, a pet technician, a potter, a glass blower or a weaver. I had no clear concept of which of them I preferred, so I ended up deciding by not deciding.

Instead of a vocational high school, I went to a study prep one. I had always done well in STEM related classes, so naturally the advisers all suggested I pursue that.

“But I want to do all these other things!” I would try to argue.

“Which one?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then pursue STEM – it’s safer, and you can always do those other things on the side.

Sound familiar?

Beware of career autopilot

So I studied STEM. And I was unhappy. But because I didn’t know what I really wanted to do, I kept going. Racking up debt and limiting my options by over-qualifying myself for many different roles. I kept sighing wistfully over job listings for bakers, seamstresses or gardeners. But none of them really fit. So I kept staying put. Studying semester after semester and limiting my future options by putting on ever more debt (modest though it is), but also – importantly to the Norwegian system – I limited my chances of future student loans.

You only get loans for 8 years in Norway. After that you have to fully fund yourself. And if you can’t, you have a problem. So every year I studied something that wasn’t my real passion, I made it more difficult for future me to get what we want when I finally figured it out.

The specifics of this opportunity cost might differ from country to country, but the conclusion is the same. And even if you aren’t racking up debt for your education, you’re still paying for it with years of your life. The biggest cost of them all.

Slow realization

I have always been terribly and frustratingly slow to realize the truths in my own life. In secondary school, I got a christian confirmation ceremony as a teenager, only to realize a year later that I was an atheist. In university, I would thoroughly understood a curriculum – usually only after I’d taken the next advanced course on the subject.

And I saw a stand for Norway’s one and only, amazing organic farming school, several years before I realized I wanted to go. That I really wanted to go. That farming and playing with digital sidehustles was all I ever wanted from life. That planting trees to suck carbon from the atmosphere was preferable to me to taking samples and analyzing them for toxins.

I wanted to grow things. Organically, to restore the planet. And with the internet providing us ample earning potential from anywhere there is a connection – we could actually make it a reality in a way that was much more difficult previously.

And I only truly realized and internalized it this year.

After I started my PhD, after we bought a house with a mortgage that needs to be managed, and after I’d spent almost 10 years heading in the wrong direction.

Turning the ship

But the true opportunity cost is in the time. Not just the time I “wasted” because I am notoriously bad at realizing what I really want. But in the time I will have to continue working in the field I’ve realized is no longer my passion. Because we need to save up money, we need to grow our sidehustles, and we need to make sure we will be stable for several years if I am to return to school.

The application date for my dream is 1st of March. And I have no choice but to watch it as it passes by because we don’t have enough in savings just yet to pull it off.

I have to wait one year, maybe two years before I can pursue my dream in earnest, now that I have finally realized what it is.

And it is, in part, because I listened to the well-meaning adults around me, and got an education I wasn’t really passionate about, in order to get a job I could “fall back on”.

If I had worked odds and ends until I realized what I wanted to do, I could have been debt free and able to jump on the chance right now.

If I had waited, like Mr. Frugasaurus, with studying until I knew what I wanted to do, I would have gotten far more value from my education.

Counting your blessings

Don’t get me wrong. There are parts about my university life that I would not give up for the world. But they are all related to the people I met and the person I grew into. It has nothing to do with the courses I studied or the qualifications I acquired.

Then again, perhaps I would never have realized what I really wanted to do if I hadn’t taken the detour through depression, anxiety and self-doubt? Without my awesome previous boss who hired a blue-eyed student to a summer job of landscape gardening. Which helped her realize that being outside and changing with the seasons was rewarding and fun and inspiring?

But I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to finally have found your passion, only to park yourself on a fence. Waiting and saving money until you can finally pursue it. Which is, in part, why I have added the new tracker on the right hand sidebar of the blog, and all my sidehustle earnings will go to the progress of saving for a year of expenses at Norway’s organic farming school. Every Etsy sale, every blog ad penny. It’s all going towards that bar.

The opportunity cost of not knowing what we want to be when we grow up.

Time is all we have

And if by the end of the next two years I do not have enough, I will have saved enough to supplement it.

I am frustrated, but I am also really, really excited. I found the thing I have been searching for my entire life – I found my passion.

So don’t be like me. Don’t get yourself stuck in a situation it might take you months and years to untangle yourself from. For many it is debt. For me it was my own education. Don’t do it just because you don’t know what you want to do. Take a step back and breathe. Pursuing a “safe” fall back option won’t work if that fall back option is so time consuming that you do not have time to realize or pursue your passions.

Wait and be patient. Explore, try new things. But be wary of the opportunity cost of getting yourself stuck in a career you do not actually want to stay in for the rest of your life. You might spend several years untangling yourself from that career once you find the thing that truly lights you up.

9 Comments on “The opportunity cost of not knowing what you want to be when you grow up

  1. This is beautifully written, and I so understand your frustration. I’ve never questioned what I was going to be when I grew up (a nurse… always), but my husband did not really know – so, like you, he started out doing what everyone told him he should do (engineering) – and hated it. He realized later on in life that his love for history would have aligned perfectly with teaching, archaeology, etc… but of course at this point, we have kids, and a mortgage, and so on…
    It is good to see that you are at least laying out a path to pursue your passions – I’m excited to follow along with you 🙂

    • Awww, thank you Kate! I’ve always envied the people who knew exactly what they wanted to be from the get-go. I’ll never know if I would have realized that I wanted to be an organic farmer if there had been any role models in my social circle, but at least now I do. 🙂
      Sad to hear about your husband being in a similar situation, and I hope he is not too miserable.
      Thank you for following along!

  2. Glad you found your passion, even if you feel it’s later than you wished. Maybe think about the skills you’ve built than can transfer to it or give you a unique edge?

    • Thanks Melissa. There probably will be some overlap between the skills I’ve acquired so far and the new ones I want to gain. I have all this knowledge and experience after all, I can’t just unlearn it. 🙂

  3. Now that you are so thoughtful and self-reflective, you can better use the time you have now. That earlier time where you didn’t know yourself so well isn’t necessarily time wasted, since it brought you to this point.
    I’m 25+ years into my career and doing something very different than my early jobs. However, I use those skills and that experience. I can’t trace the journey in a direct line but it’s clear looking back that everything contributed. So while we often take a roundabout journey I don’t know that I could have done it any other way. So it’s less an opportunity cost than really a different opportunity.

    • Thank you Caroline. I agree that the time has not been wasting, but it is a bit frustrating to have to wait even longer. 🙂 It is lovely to hear all these stories from other people with non-linear paths too, I’m loving it!

  4. This is touching and I feel for you. It is also inspiring if you can look forward at the possibility to do what you want rather than back at what can’t be changed and may pull down your personal narrative. You mentioned at the beginning:

    “How do we know what is the right choice when we don’t have that much experience out in the real world? But the opportunity cost of choosing wrong just to chose something can be even greater”

    and then at the end you mentioned:

    “Wait and be patient. Explore, try new things. But be wary of the opportunity cost of getting yourself stuck in a career you do not actually want to stay in for the rest of your life.”

    I totally agree with your part about exploring and trying new things but the part about waiting and being patient to decide so you don’t end up locked in could be actually equally crippling. I have a friend who has always tried to keep his options open because he didn’t know yet. But then life decides for you because it moves on. Paradoxically, I believe it is better to decide and commit to your favorite option and then quickly learn and iterate. In other words, your past learning experience may not have been that going into STEM in the first place was the problem (after all you didn’t know yet) but rather not learning and iterating quickly enough to change? What do you think? I think of what you are doing now as aspiring to your next career rather than waiting for it and I wish all the success in making the change for you.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful comment. Interesting comment you made about your friend who is so set on keeping his options open that he actually limits himself, I hadn’t heard that before.

      And I do agree in some ways. I never would have met my amazing friends or learned so much about myself if I hadn’t gone and studied STEM. I might wish that I had studied something else, but the past can’t be changed. Good thing the future can! I guess I saw it as more black and white than necessary, since I have the polar opposite of my husband, who decided to work until he realized what he wanted to study. Ironically, he too started studying something he thought would be his career, but realized his true passion in a different but related field. Maybe he too would have realized earlier if he had gone at it straight away and learned and iterated faster?

      I guess we will never know. 🙂

  5. Pingback: The Opportunity Cost Of Not Knowing What You Want To Be When You Grow Up | Womens Money Talk

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