In Which I Choose a Career

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Forgive me for a personal post but this is one dear to my heart and to the overall theme of this website, namely education. As I near the end of my schooling (finally!) and continuing to figure out what my career goals lie on I’ve reflected on what what led me to this point in life. Below is part of the story of this journey. I share this because it is a story of the importance of trusting God.

I was not the most socially adept individual growing up. I got along fine with nearly everyone but talking to people was never a strength. As a freshman at BYU I made progress; I continued that progress as a missionary. However, even now, many years later, I’m still only partially broken out of that shell – a place I’m content to be. What I find surprising given my past is that I happen to have a degree (nearly) that seems to be at odds with my personality and background. This is the story that explains that process.

When I was young I did not have a strong idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up. The earliest educational or career goal I remember is wanting to earn at least a Master’s degree (a goal I reached a number of years ago and then continued on with more school). I had some of the common childhoods desires – to be an astronaut or a pilot. I thought briefly of being a professional musician but accurately realized I didn’t really have the skill or drive to become one. I also thought about being a theoretical physicist but never seriously pursued that. I moved into a stage where I wanted to be an engineer, which was driven in part by brothers-in-law who were or were studying to be engineers. Then in high school I settled on a career in the Air Force as a pilot. I stuck with this, applying for and receiving an ROTC scholarship for college. As part of receiving the scholarship I had to pick a major before college; there was a limited list of approved majors but I settled on electrical engineering because I loved electronics, math, science, and computers. I also chose electrical engineering in part because there were other engineers in the family (brothers-in-law) but no electrical yet.

As a freshman at BYU I jumped into Air Force ROTC and my engineering classes. I loved my ROTC experiences but was not enjoying engineering much. Part of the problem was my own difficulties managing my time well (somewhat ironically, I currently teach people time management skills).

After my first semester, when I had struggled in a couple classes, I took the Christmas break to re-evaluate my career choices, including one in the Air Force. One of my engineering class grades was such that my scholarship with the Air Force was in jeopardy but separately from that I had come to the realization that I was not on the right career path. This realization came as spiritual insight as I thought and prayed. I did not know what I wanted to do instead but I started thinking of going to medical school but I wasn’t settled on anything. I went back for the next semester, resolved to give ROTC a week or two, but I did not feel right continuing with it so I gave it up. Ending my involvement in ROTC was a difficult decision because I loved it so much. Giving it up meant giving up the possibility of being a jet fighter pilot and getting to fly through the air at supersonic speeds, strapped onto a huge jet engine. I’m not a thrill-seeker but that would be really cool. stuck with electrical engineering for the rest of the semester but still did not really enjoy it. I remember thinking one night as I was in the engineering lab trying to get my homework in before the midnight deadline that I really didn’t want my entire career to revolve around computers, having limited social interaction – a perhaps somewhat unfair assessment of the work electrical engineers do. It was a surprising conclusion I came to, given my own social weaknesses.

So I ended my freshman year of college having no idea what I wanted to be. Thankfully, I had 2 years as a missionary to think more about it. Over those two years some of the edges of my social ineptitude started to rub off. When talking with and teaching people is much of what you do for 2 years, you are bound to gain a little skill at it (and in my case that skill was very little). I gained a love of teaching people during those two years. Reflecting back, I always had a love of teaching. I used to enjoy helping other students in elementary school finish their classwork after I had finished mine. Knowledge is only really good when it is shared with other people. Knowledge hoarded selfishly like shiny baubles is worthless. The good of knowledge comes by sharing it with others and hoping that they take it to new places you’ve never dreamed about.

It was during this period that I started to become interested in psychology, in understanding people and behavior. I was interested in part because I felt I was fairly clueless about people and behavior so it would be interesting to learn. I also thought about going into economics with the goal of setting up micro-loans for people around the world, to help them improve their situations. The more I thought, I realized I kept hovering around psychology and wanting to understand the brain so I registered for an introduction to psychology at BYU for after my mission.

One week into that class I knew that I wanted to study psychology. I changed my major from engineering to psychology and never looked back. What really drew me in was the brain, something that had been fascinating to me for years. I did not really know what I wanted to do with psychology but the one thing I knew I did not want to do was go into clinical psychology, to help people struggling with depression or personality disorders or other difficulties. That was the last thing I wanted to do. So naturally what do I (nearly) have a PhD in now? Clinical Psychology.

This path came about by talking with a teacher’s assistant in one of my courses. He was in BYU’s clinical psychology program, focusing specifically on neuropsychology. This meant that his specialty was going to be studying the brain and brain-behavior relationships. I realized that what I really liked in psychology had to do with understanding the brain more, particularly as it dysfunctions such as in dementias or Parkinson’s disease. While there were non-clinical paths I could have taken to do research in those areas, I liked the applied clinical side; it has direct implications and benefits in people’s lives.

So I decided on clinical neuropsychology, still really not wanting to deal with people’s depression and other psychological and psychiatric issues. This decision turned into a long path of schooling, one finally nearing its close in about 2 months. Even though I was so opposed to clinical psychology initially part of my decision to study clinical psychology was because I thought I would finally learn a bit about people and social behavior, something that has proven to be true. I knew what I would learn in clinical psychology were areas of weakness for me, which made it important to work on them. Our weaknesses cannot become strengths without effort.

Never when I was younger would I ever thought I would be where I am now with the degree that I (almost) have. I would have found the idea ridiculous. I, who was at times painfully shy and at best socially apathetic, spend nearly every day talking and working with people. Yes, I also provide psychotherapy, helping people cope with depression and anxiety and other issues, although that’s not really where my interests lie.

I share all this because this process serves a testimony of the truth of the Lord’s words to the prophet Moroni: “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” (Ether 12:27; emphasis added).

Through many years of effort and excellent training, what were before chasms of weaknesses are at least smoothed out. Valleys of weaknesses have been elevated. The fact that I am doing something I never even imagined doing is evidence of God’s guidance and grace. There is still much to learn and many weaknesses to work on but the Lord has promised that our weaknesses can become our strengths, which I find encouraging.

One additional thing I’ve learned is that I’m not particularly good at knowing what is best for my life. Thankfully, I have a loving Father in Heaven who knows more and better than I do and who is willing to be patient with me when I’ve tried to walk on paths that did not lead to where I needed to go. I’m also grateful for Him letting me walk on those paths long enough to discover that for myself.