Advice to Kids: Sometimes You Cannot Be Anything You Want to Be

The information we give to kids about careers is often feel good unrealistic nonsense. When you daughter says she wants to be a famous singer and she does not have a musical ear, why do you tell her she can do it if she works hard? She will most likely never become a singer. Year after year, thousands of aspiring young singers show up for auditions with great expectations, only to learn that they don’t possess the skills they thought they did. The same goes for sports: only select few make it to the top, so if your child has average athletic abilities, why do you let him believe he can be a professional athlete?

Each year, young adults who have been taught to “follow their passions” face the job market and experience a genuine shock at being rejected — the incredible realization that their passion and their ability have nothing to do with each other.  Why don’t parents give their children a reality check early on?

Look, if we’re talking about a child’s hobby, by all means they should follow their passion. But when it comes to making a living, it’s easy to forget the truth: just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it. Just because you’ve earned a degree in your chosen field, doesn’t mean you’re going find your “dream job.” And just because you want to pursue a dream career doesn’t mean you will be allowed to. Sometimes you will be rejected, for whatever reason fair and unfair: because of your poor performance, or because of your poor abilities, or because you don’t fit it, or because of plain discrimination.

I had a personal experience with discrimination when I was a child. Jews in Russia have faced discrimination for centuries when getting into universities or getting jobs. Even when I was a child/tween in Russia in the 90s, discrimination against Jews was still a thing. Back then, I wanted to be a police detective, and I was studying in a special school which was affiliated with the federal police department. Graduates of that school were eligible for enrollment at a prestigious law university affiliated with the Russian government, and would eventually get government careers or achieve high police ranks. But my parents told me that as a Jew, I was most likely not going to get admitted to the university. So early in my life, I faced the harsh reality of shuttered dreams and learned that some doors were closed to me. That was a very good lesson. I moved on to new ambitions which eventually led me to much more appealing and productive careers.

These days parents don’t talk to kids about realistic careers because it’s not fun. It does not sound encouraging when you talk with kids about closed doors, even though doors close to us every day of our lives. Sure, other doors open, but it’s a tradeoff; one door opens and another closes. You need to acknowledge both.

Be honest with your kids. Talk about tradeoffs from the beginning so it’s not shocking for your kids to find out later that if they want to be CEOs they will not be able to spend much quality time with their families. Stop telling kids that doing well academically opens career doors. Because unless they are going into academia, academics don’t open career doors.

The earlier you get your child thinking about the realities of careers, the better choices they can make. Self-directed learning is best in the context of reality – which isn’t surprising since adult life is best in the context of reality as well.

It’s hard to be realistic, to reign in a child’s dreams. But reality doesn’t have to be grim, and it’s quite possible to be encouraging and realistic at the same time. My solution: I encourage my kids to become entrepreneurs and to open their own businesses. When you are an entrepreneur, you can make any career choice you want. You are not at the whim of your employer, you don’t depend on anyone, and no one can reject you for being not good enough or not fitting in. You only answer to your clients, to the market, and to your bottom line. As long as you stay profitable, you can truly follow your dream.