Sunday, May 6, 2007

Will They Heed My Career Advice at Hegarty?

By Joseph Kellard

May 6, 2007

I was invited to speak to three fourth-grade classes for the first Career Day at Hegarty Elementary School in Island Park last Friday. Like I did at Oceanside’s middle school and high school in years past, I eagerly agreed to talk to students about my career and to offer them advice that would have served me well when I was their age.

While I spoke briefly about my work as editor of the Oceanside/Island Park Herald, I spent most of my talk stressing to these young students that they should ultimately choose a profession that they can enjoy and love. A long-range, productive career is the cornerstone of self-confidence, pride and happiness, and you will not fully achieve these values stuck in a job you don’t like. To get them to understand this fact, I told them to imagine being stuck each day, every week, in a class they dislike, be it math or English. As they grasped my analogy, some students groaned.

I told each class that when I was in grade school, I was a poor student who had a mild form of dyslexia, so my biggest problems were with reading and writing. Knowing I loved sports, however, my parents bought me a subscription to Sports Illustrated, believing, correctly, that this would motivate me to read, and my proficiency soared thereafter.

Through my teen years, I expanded my reading to include encyclopedias and works by writers ranging from Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolstoy to Hemingway, Capote and Joyce Carol Oates. I would write lists of unfamiliar words and historical and mythological figures that had me reaching for my dictionaries and encyclopedias.

In my late teens, I’d become so fascinated with the various ways one can use the English language that I began writing my own short stories and poems. I had decided I wanted to be a fiction writer.

My purpose in recounting all of this to the Hegarty kids was the hope that they would take my experiences as a guide for how to begin thinking about their own potential careers. Specifically, I wanted them to consider some activities they enjoy, and to think about applying these to the seemingly countless career choices they have in this land of opportunity.

Maybe you love animals and have always been intrigued by doctors, I explained, so why not think of becoming a vet? Perhaps you like to talk a lot and enjoy athletics, so being a sports announcer might be your bag. Are you a numbers person? If so, maybe your calling is to teach math, be an accountant or work with statistics.

I made sure to tell them that I’d left college to work at a good-paying, full-time “job” with a medical company, but within a few years I realized this was not my field, I was bored and felt stuck, as if I were in a dreaded algebra class each day. But I noted that I never gave up on my writing and self-education, reading writers on subjects ranging from philosophy, history and art to politics, American culture and sports. I began to write some opinion columns that were published in a few semi-prominent newspapers, and this led me to try my hand at freelance reporting and, eventually, a career in journalism.

I also stressed to students that it’s not enough to just shoot for a particular career, but that they must take the necessary steps to attain that ideal. It¹s one thing for someone to say, “I want to write a novel,” and another to have the discipline to invest the countless hours and enormous effort to become a published fiction writer.

When one boy told me that he’d like to be the next Derek Jeter, I asked him if he played Little League and practiced baseball even in the winter. One girl said she wanted to be a lawyer. I told her that, in part, she’ll have to learn how to speak well to present her cases, and so she should take some public speaking classes in high school. This led me into a discussion on how to build a resume.

When I left Hegarty and headed back to my office, I hoped that at least a few of the students had learned a lesson that I dismissed or evaded in my youth: Making a career choice is one of the most important decisions of your life, and crucial to your happiness. If they follow this advice, then they likely won’t have to struggle unnecessarily for several years and through a string of dead-end jobs before finally finding a profession to be passionate about.

Joseph Kellard is a journalist living in New York. Comments about this column? Email:

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