Waiter: Sir, would you like more coffee? I'm about to go to lunch.
Me: Yes, thank you. Hey, I saw you had some textbooks over there. Are you in school?
Waiter: Yes, sir.
Me: Cool! Where are you going?
Waiter: I mean, it's just Ozarka. I'm trying to get my basics out of the way.
Me: Sounds like a pretty good idea. Where are you going after that?
Waiter: I don't really know. I'm not sure what I want to be yet, so I don't want to waste a bunch of money on school without some idea.
Me: I get that. So you don't like being a waiter?
Waiter: Nah. It's OK, but it's not really much of a career. I just don't know what I want to be yet, so I'm working on this gig until I figure things out.
Me: How will you figure things out?
Waiter: I mean, I guess I'll just know--like something will seem really interesting or something.
Me: You see, I'm not sure that I'm in the right business either, so I was just wondering.
Waiter: What do you do?
Me: I'm a teacher, but that doesn't seem like much of a career either.
Waiter: What? I mean, it's better than being a waiter...You get paid more, at least.
Me: Not much more, once you figure in the amount of work and training that goes into it, and, unlike being a good waiter, being a good teacher involves far less job security.
Waiter: Really? See that's one of the things I was thinking about being if nothing else worked out.
Look...I've got break now. Could we talk more about this later?
Me: Sure! I'm Clayton, by the way. You want to join me for lunch? I'll buy it for you. It's nice to have someone to talk to.
Waiter: Hm. That actually sounds pretty good!
Me: Have a seat.
Waiter: So, what were you saying about better job security for waiters than teachers?
Me: Well, not so much for any waiter than any teacher, but certainly for a good waiter and a good teacher!
Waiter: I don't get it.
Me: Let me put it this way. Teachers have better contracts than waiters, no doubt, and more protection from being fired on a whim. I've been a waiter before, so yeah, I know how it is. But there are some pretty important differences between the two jobs.
Waiter: Like what?
Me: Well, a waiter fulfills a very palpable need that everyone, wise or foolish, can recognize: they bring people food. What's more, they bring it to people who genuinely want to receive it, and then they get paid in tips based on how well they perform at bringing it!
Me: So, a teacher has none of those things. First, the people who procure teachers aren't children, but their parents. In fact, if children were in charge, I'm pretty sure all of our Algebra teachers would be out of a job pretty quick. Second, teachers can't be judged very well by the parents on their performance, because the parents don't know the subject as well as the teachers, at least if the teacher is reasonably qualified. Finally, a teacher gets the skills necessary to teach a subject, and then goes on to teach it, which means that they are only certified in material as it was in the past. Since every subject can change, advance, or even become obsolete over time, the longer a teacher spends teaching instead of learning, the worse that teacher becomes at his/her subject. Imagine if a waiter could only improve by being waited on! You'd never make any tip money!
Waiter: So, you're saying I should just be a waiter and not a teacher? What's the point in going to school then?
Me: Well, I actually never said anything like that. But as for your second question....Did you learn something just now?
Waiter: I guess so....
Me: And? What did you learn?
Waiter: I suppose I learned why being a teacher sucks and why it's OK to be a waiter.
Me: Well, that's a start. Then you've also just answered your question about what the point of school is. School, like this conversation, tells you how things are. By going to school, you learn what is true about being a waiter, teacher, doctor, lawyer, etc. It teaches you how to be.
Waiter: But I don't know what I want to be! That's the problem.
Me: Now there you're exactly right. See, if you wanted to be a waiter, school would become more profitable immediately, because you would seek out how to apply what you learn to your job right now. You would certainly retain more of what you learned, because it would surround you every day. For every bit more that you retained, you would earn higher grades, and those higher grades would help you have additional opportunities once you left school. More importantly, you would do a better job later, because you would see how to do it properly.
Waiter: So I need to want to be a waiter? How do I do that?
Me: It's difficult if you've already made up your mind. I don't have all the answers, but here's what I would say:
First, you know that you have this job for a purpose--to pay for your bills, rent, groceries, etc. That gives it a subjective value to you, apart from what it means for anyone else. That means that you can appreciate the job as just another component of having the things you like.
Second, you know that this job has some unique benefits in comparison with other jobs (like being a teacher). That means it has relative or comparative value when placed next to other things.
Finally, you can see that the job fulfills an ongoing, useful role in society based on basic human needs. That gives it a certain intrinsic or absolute value.
Once you observe those things in any occupation, you can start to discipline yourself into liking it a little more. And every little bit helps.
If we take the "waiter" part out of your question, we might see that this gives us a few clues at how to "want to be" in general:
We appreciate our being subjectively by investigating the things we like about our lives. We can appreciate being relatively, by comparing it with the lives of people or things more miserable than us, or even by merely observing the differences between our existence and the existence of other things. Surely, while there are great things about being a wall, a wall can't fall in love or appreciate a sunset or take you on a date, or whatever; I, however, can appreciate those things once I set our two existences against one another. I can also appreciate my life intrinsically by knowing more about my place in the world and seeing how I contribute to it.
It strikes me that the more I look at "being" in this way, the more I begin to "want to be".
Waiter: So how does this relate to my original question, knowing what I want to be?
Me: Well, if you focus on those three ways of knowing how to be, it won't matter what you are. You will always be happy and able to see what it is that will add subjective, relative, or intrinsic value to your life, and you will love doing what you do because you love being itself. One caveat, while it would seem to me that improving the subjective or relative aspects of your life should certainly be enough to warrant a great deal of happiness, adding intrinsic value would add exponentially more, and remain for longer, because relative and subject value depend entirely on the changing world around you. One thing is certain: the world will change.
And yet, our intrinsic value is something which, oddly enough, we can't do anything about either. We don't have the ability to add intrinsic value to our being, because our being is in relation to everything else! So, if we are going to appreciate and investigate that intrinsic value and "want to be" more because of it, we have to find another source, one that knows all about us and our place in the universe.
Waiter: OK, so you're talking about God now, right?
Me: I'm more just wondering out loud. It would seem that only some being like God would fit the description, so perhaps it makes at least some sense to search out God for the answers, even if our search turns up little or nothing. At least it would confirm our progress in "wanting to be". It also seems to me that this would apply to your problem.
Waiter: My problem?
Me: Knowing what you want to do with your life. If knowing how one "wants to be" involves making a search for something like God, wouldn't that also change the object of your search? It go from meaning "knowing what my desires suggest that I want to be" to "knowing what my investigation of God leads me to want to be". And that brings to mind a word that perhaps better fits that description: a calling or vocation. (vocation < Lat. vocare = to call)
Waiter: So I should try to figure out what I am called to do, and not what I want to do? That actually makes sense, and somehow, it also makes me feel better about what I'm doing right now. I'm not sure why.
Me: Maybe, just maybe, because being able to recognize the possibility of an intrinsic value to one's life in the future at least suggests an intrinsic value to one's life right now: even if you're a waiter. Maybe it's your vocation for the moment, and that means that happiness is present right now, even if you have to look around a bit to find it.
Waiter: Well, right now they're calling me back from break. Thanks for the chat!