On Friday I presented to CPS high school students attending the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities’ “Disability Mentoring Day.” My presentation was on “Animal Careers,” but my message to all the students (whether or not they like animals), was to get out there and experiment with LOTS of career options in order to find fulfillment.
Confucius said, “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Teenage years should be about gaining as many experiences as possible to learn about what sets the heart aflutter. Photography, writing, working with people, studying animal behavior—the possibilities are endless. There are far too many people that invest multiple years and thousands of dollars in pursuing a career only to find out that it is not something they are well suited for. Passion pursuits could lead to less apathy in our workforce.
I love my work, but my 18-year career with animals wasn’t a childhood dream. When I was 12 years old, if you asked me what I wanted to be, I would reply, “an international corporate attorney.” I remember the conversation with a 6th grade teacher that led me to recite that answer on cue. A teacher with the best intent remarked that I was good with debate so I should be an attorney. I replied, “I would never want to defend someone that was a murderer.” The teacher countered me by saying that I could be a corporate attorney and not deal with murder cases. I recoiled with a final protest, “that sounds so boring.” “Well, be an international corporate attorney and you can travel the world,” was the teacher’s final reply that melded into my mantra, but thankfully the career never came to fruition for me. The teacher was trying to foster a student’s talent into the pursuit of what she thought was a well-suited career, but she was quite unaware of the multitude of non-traditional opportunities.
Growing up, my mom and grandmother spent a lot of time taking me to Brookfield Zoo. We had nearly every pet imaginable and my mom was sort of the neighborhood Dr. Doolittle - giving advice and helping animals (some of which were literally left on our doorstep). The love for animals was there, but no one talked to me about careers related to animals. When most people think of “animal careers” a veterinarian is the first, if not only, that jumps to mind, but there are dozens of other options.
At 16, a summer job at Brookfield Zoo ended up turning into my 18-year career working at nonprofits that help animals. I couldn’t be happier and I want to help other kids experiment and explore different organizations and jobs because there are so many more options than one could possibly learn about in a classroom.
On Friday I also explained the importance of building up essential job skills such as reliability and dedication. Pursuing passions doesn’t mean a life void of hard work; something Confucius’ famous quote doesn’t mention. Truly rewarding careers come through real labor and sacrifices. I started off my career only making $4.25/hour (minimum wage in 1995) and didn’t have health care for the first 8 years of full-time work. I balanced work, studies, and waiting tables to make it all possible. Every opportunity and promotion came from drive and putting in extra effort beyond the job requirements. In general, attitudes of entitlement don’t take people very far – they only lead people to create imagined lists of things they think they should get.
Personally and professionally, everyone chooses his or her own attitude. All jobs have work and undesirable aspects, but our focus and emphasis defines our attitude. When I worked as an attendant to the dolphin trainers, most of my days were spent cleaning up after people that visited the building – cleaning bathrooms and scraping gum off the floor filled a lot of my time. I chose to focus on the fleeting moments of public education, animal interaction, and fun with coworkers. Every person has the ability to choose an attitude of gratitude; it makes work much easier for everyone.
In addition to cultivating experiences and a positive attitude, I encouraged youth to stick with their academic studies – (even the ones they may find tedious now) because you never know what you will use later. Zookeepers need math to calculate the weights and measurements of animal diets. Many animal-related careers (my current job included) involve a lot of writing. I hated writing in school. I was assigned to do so much of it and I always saw it as a laborious task. Today, I see the true power in writing. I told the teens how powerful animals’ stories are in helping them find forever homes. Writing can change the world and save lives.
If you know of any teens that occasionally find themselves struggling and seeking direction, encourage them to think about the things that make them happiest and help them seek out a variety of work experiences that will allow them to learn about possibilities. Guide them in cultivating a positive attitude and support them in building a strong academic foundation.
Check out The Anti-Cruelty Society's Humane Education programs here.
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