How To Determine Whether You're Following Your Own Dreams Or Someone Else's

Mentally strong people don't let others determine their career paths. Instead, they take charge of their own lives and go wherever they want to go. I was lucky to realize I was at the stage where I was making my own career decisions, and I want to share my story with you.

I planned to become a medical doctor.

Back when I was in high school, and through the first couple of years of college, I had a clear career goal. Why? Looking back at it, my career goal was a result of encouragement and expectations from my family and friends.

My family emigrated from the Soviet Union when I was 10, and we spent the next few years living in poverty. I remember my parents' early jobs in America: My dad was driving a bread delivery truck, and my mom cleaning other people's houses. We couldn't afford nice things.

I felt so ashamed in front of the other kids for not being able to get the latest cool backpack or wear cool clothes. I was always on the margins, never fitting in.

My parents encouraged me to become a medical doctor. They gave up their successful professional careers when they moved to the US, and they worked long and hard to regain financial stability. It's no wonder they wanted me to have a career that guaranteed a high income, stability and prestige.

My friends also encouraged me to go into medicine. My best friend in high school, in particular, also wanted to become a medical doctor. He wanted to have a prestigious job and make lots of money, which sounded like a good goal to have. It reinforced my parents' advice. In addition, friendly competition was a big part of my relationship with my best friend.

You could sense this competition when we were arguing with each other about life questions or playing poker into the wee hours of the morning. You could see it when we put in our long hours to ace our biochemistry exams, and got high scores on the standardized tests in order to get into medical school. These were just the ways in which we showed one another who was top dog.

I still remember the thrill of finding out that I had gotten a higher score on a standardized test. I had won.

As you can see, it was very easy for me to go along with everything my friends and family encouraged me to do. I was in my last year of college, working through the complicated and expensive process of applying to medical schools, when I came across an essay question that stopped me in my tracks:

“Why do you want to be a medical doctor?”

Why did I want to be a medical doctor? Well, it's what everyone around me wanted me to do.

It was what my family wanted me to do. It was what my friends encouraged me to do. It would mean getting a lot of money. It would be a very safe career. It would be prestigious.

So, it was the right thing for me to do. Wasn't it?

Well, maybe it wasn't. I realized I had never really stopped and thought about what I wanted to do with my life. My career is the way in which I would spend much of my time every week for many, many years.

But I had never considered what kind of work I would actually want to do, not to mention whether I would even want to do the work involved with being a medical doctor. As a medical doctor, I would work long and sleepless hours, spend my time around the sick and dying and have people's lives in my hands. Is that what I wanted to do?

There I was, sitting at the keyboard, staring at that blank Word document with that essay question at the top. Why did I want to be a medical doctor? I didn't have a good answer to that question.

My mind was racing, and my thoughts were jumbled. What should I do? I decided to talk to someone I could trust.

So, I called my girlfriend to help me deal with my mini-life crisis. She was very supportive, as I thought she would be. She told me I shouldn't do what others thought I should do, but that I should think about what would make me happy. She said that it's more important to have a lifestyle you enjoy.

Her words provided a valuable outside perspective for me. By the end of our conversation, I realized that I had no interest in being a medical doctor. If I continued down the path I was on, I would be miserable in my career. I would be doing it just for the money and prestige.

I realized I was on the medical school track because others I trust — my parents and my friends — told me it was a good idea so much, I believed it to be true. This was regardless of whether it was actually a good thing for me to do.

Why did this happen?

I later learned that I found myself in this situation, in part, because of a common thinking error that scientists call the mere exposure effect. This term refers to our brain's tendency to believe something is true and good simply because we are familiar with it, regardless of whether or not it actually is.

Since I learned about the mere exposure effect, I am much more suspicious of any beliefs I have that are frequently repeated by others around me. I go the extra mile to evaluate whether or not they are true and good for me. This means I can gain agency and intentionally take actions that help me toward my long-term goals.

So, what happened next?

After my big realization about medical school and the conversation with my girlfriend, I took some time to think about my actual long-term goals. What did I — not someone else — want to do with my life? What kind of career did I want to have? Where did I want to go?

I was always passionate about history. In grade school, I got into trouble for reading history books under my desk while the teacher talked about math. As a teenager, I stayed up until 3 am, reading books about World War II. Even when I was on the medical school track in college, I double-majored in history and biology.

History is my love and joy. However, I never seriously considered going into history professionally. It's not a field in which one can make much money or have great job security.

After considering my options and preferences, I decided that money and security mattered less than a profession that would be genuinely satisfying and meaningful. "What's the point of making a million bucks if I'm miserable doing it?" I thought to myself. I chose a long-term goal I thought would make me happy, as opposed to simply choosing one that was in line with the expectations my parents and friends had.

So, I decided to become a history professor. My decision led to some big challenges with those close to me. My parents were very upset to learn I no longer wanted to go to medical school. They really tore into me, telling me I would never be well off or have job security. It also wasn't easy to tell my friends that I had decided to become a history professor instead of a medical doctor.

My best friend even jokingly asked if I was willing to trade grades on the standardized medical school exam, since I wasn't going to use my score. It was painful to accept that I had wasted so much time and effort to prepare for medical school, only to realize it was not the right choice for me. I really I wish this was something I had realized earlier, and not in my last year of college.

If you want to avoid finding yourself in a situation like this, here are three steps you can take:

1. Think about what you want to do in your life.

Stop and think about your life purpose and long-term goals. Write these down on a piece of paper.

2. Review your thoughts, and see whether you may be excessively influenced by the messages you get from your family, friends or the media.

If so, pay special attention and make sure these goals are also aligned with what you want for yourself. Answer the following question: If you did not have any of those influences, what would you put down for your own life purpose and long-term goals?

Recognize that your life is yours, not theirs. You should live the life you choose for yourself. This approach is part of a broader strategy of dealing with common thinking errors by considering the alternatives. Research shows that this is a very effective way to avoid thinking errors such as the mere exposure effect.

3. Review your answers and revise them as needed every three months.

Avoid being attached to your previous goals. Remember: You change throughout your life, and your goals and preferences change with you. Don't be afraid to let go of the past, and welcome the current with your arms wide open.


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