“What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to do with your life?” I remember hearing those questions back in my teenage years, and I had the answer — all the answers. I knew with certainty what I wanted to be — a doctor; a pediatrician to be exact. With a plan and scholarships to back me up, the path was clear and nothing would stop me. Obtaining an MD was my destiny. Local hospitals rallied around me. Organic chemistry didn’t even derail me.
But something happened during my sophomore year and my plans slowly unraveled. By semester’s end, they came to a complete halt. I’m sure it had nothing to do with meeting a hunky football player. All of a sudden the crystal clear picture of the white coat and stethoscope became clouded. I wondered, “Is this really my destiny? I want to have kids and be a mom someday. Could I do both well?” The years of certainty of becoming a doctor seemed to dissolve overnight as I decided, “No.” With this decision, I changed my major to business, picked up new scholarships to replace ones lost from hospitals supporting my pre-med path, and my organic chemistry and science classes became electives. It all made perfect sense.
In 1987, I graduated with a BS in Business from Indiana University with a minor in Decision Sciences, lots of science electives, and no football hunk. When I secured a job at my No. 1 pick, Eli Lilly and Company, in November of my senior year, I was certain this was my path and began working in the corporate world a month after graduation. A few years later I was promoted to project leader — managing people, budgets, tasks, and deadlines. Despite the grueling hours, the role of business executive fit.
Seven years into my career at Lilly, I took a family leave to become a stay-at-home mom, never looking back nor missing the pressures of overseeing a high-exposure project while carrying the emotional weight of managing 24 people. Being a mom was a joy and privilege — the best vocation of all.
When my oldest child was in first grade, a “breakdown/epiphany” led me down a completely different career path after my marriage ended in divorce. I enrolled in Christian Theological Seminary to obtain a Masters of Divinity degree. After six years of schooling, I was on path to become a Presbyterian minister. It’s another type of healer, I thought — like a doctor but with a black, not white, robe. People told me black was my color. It all made perfect sense, of course.
Within a year after graduation, doubts crept in and my desire and conviction slowly changed. As my uncertainty grew, echoes from two of my seminary professors continued resurfacing, “Julie, you’re a writer.” A writer? Where did that come from? I had no idea. I’m not a writer, I’m a math/science geek — remember the B in that high school creative writing class? But the voices were relentless.
On an inquisitive whim, I drove to the local newspaper and found myself in front of the owners. I spewed out my story, handed them my resume, and said, “I’m here with two goals: to be a contributor and to gain experience as an unpaid intern.” They hired me on the spot and, three months later, promoted me to managing editor. My new role was overseeing content and staff as well as writing feature stories, community pieces, and a weekly column. Today, I’m a freelance writer. I have never had a single writing nor journalism class in my life.
As I reflect on my career path now, I realize that being a writer makes no sense at all. It also took me a while to get here. But during 30 years of searching I have gleaned some wisdom and can now see how each step of my journey helped me reach the next. Most importantly, I learned that “feeling certain” about my path did not necessarily lead to certainty. My feelings changed along the way.
Today, what I know for certain is that I don't know for certain what I’m destined to do with my life, but I do know what I’m supposed to do right now. In many ways I’m at the same point as college graduates — commencement. Commencement, of course, comes from the word “commence” which means to begin. You don’t even have to be a writer to figure that out.
So, graduates, I hope that you pick a starting point and go after it with gusto. You never know where it will lead or what doors it may open in the future. I was certain I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I was wrong. I’m not a doctor, a business executive, nor a pastor. I’m a writer, and, in many ways, just getting started like you.
So let’s celebrate our commencements together. Congratulations!