How the worst ever career day helped change my life for the better supports well-read citizens of the world.When I was about nine, I happened to have a really terrible career day at school.

The guidance counselor came into our class and asked us all, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Basic question, right? We were assigned a writing project to explain our future ambitions, and then “guidance guy” took us aside one by one to talk with us about our career plans.

I was nine. I had no clue what kind of career path I wanted! So by the time the guy got around to me I was really anxious, knowing that what I’d written wasn’t at all applicable to the exercise, but hoping I wouldn’t get in trouble. Here’s what I wrote down that day:

“I’m only nine years old. I’m in the GATE program, and I know I’m at the top of my class for grades. I make sure to do that because I want every possible opportunity to be open to me when I get to High School and start looking at colleges and careers. But right now, all I know about what I want out of life, is that no matter what I might choose to do, I want my mother to be proud of me every day of my life no matter what I choose to do for a career.”

That, written down, didn’t fill my page, which was the chief requirement of the exercise. I t also didn’t say a single word about any potential future career path ideas I didn’t have at age nine. So because of those failings, I was afraid of getting in trouble. Everyone was supposed to have written a page full about our future career goals. Some kids, I saw, had filled their page front and back. I couldn’t think of anything else to write. I was having a mild panic attack, because I was just that anxious as a child.

Then it was my turn to sit down with the guidance councilor.

He was not impressed with what I’d written. He told me, I kid you not, that I needed direction. That if I didn’t have some idea of the kind of career I wanted right then, I was probably going to have a less successful life and I was probably going to end up in a menial job like working at McDonald’s because I didn’t have the ambition to strive for anything greater. He said I lacked motivation, I lacked ambition, I lacked direction and drive and maybe I didn’t deserve to be in the GATE program at all.

Now that I’m an adult, I can look back at this and say, “Seriously? I was placed in GATE and then I was at the top of my class and this guy said such a thing to me as a nine-year old child? What was wrong with that guy?!?”

But back to the day in question:

I started crying. The guidance councilor and my GATE teacher marked my paper with an “F”, which required me to take it home so my parents could sign off on my failure.

I cried off and on for the rest of that day at school because I’d never failed anything before, because I was at the top of my class and to get an “F” was really humiliating, because I was going to have to explain to my mother what had happened. I was really ashamed. I was afraid of being punished at home.

Thankfully, my mother is a wonderful person. She gathered me up and hugged me, and told me I had been exactly right to write what I did. She said it wasn’t reasonable to ask nine-year-old children to determine their lifelong career path at such a young age, and that all that would do would be to end up leading all us kids to disappointment, because of course most of my classmates had picked highly idealistic futures like being a rock star or a pro basketball player – things that they were highly unlikely to be capable of achieving when reality was taken into consideration.

My mom took a totally different approach compared to my school’s guidance councilor and my teacher.

She said, “The question is not what kind of career you want to have when you grow up. I’d rather have you start to think about what kind of person you want to be when you grow up. You’re old enough now to start thinking about the direction of your inner character – will you be a good person? Will you be accomplished? Will you be well-read and well-rounded? Will you be kind? Will you be genuine, honest, caring, personable? It’s essential that you get good grades in school, because that will provide you with open doors of opportunity down the line, exactly like you wrote today. But it’s later on, during college, trade school, an apprenticeship or internship, that’s when you’ll get job training or career training. So those open doors are necessary, and good grades will provide the open doors. But right now, let’s focus on  your character, and your general knowledge.”

Needless to say, I felt a lot better after talking with my mother.

The next day she handed me a list of books very similar to the one that circulates widely today, which I provide below. I don’t know where she got her version of the list, or how she came up with it, since the internationally recognized list of the best books ever written wasn’t yet established at that time.

I had a great time, first of all, going through the list and marking off the books I’d already read, which was about twenty or so. I felt accomplished already! Then she helped me pick out the books that were the most suitable for my age, and I started checking them out from the library one by one.

As I went on, I realized I was reading great books from a wide variety of very famous authors in a wide range of subjects, and that my views were being greatly expanded by varying my reading material so much. Reading books on the same type of subject or genre is less enlightening than reading more widely. Reading books on lots of different things, written at lots of different times and by lots of different authors makes for lots of different opinions, points of view and subjects of knowledge.

Later on, a few of the books on my list were required reading in High School, such as To Kill a Mockingbird. And because I’d already read the book, my homework load was lighter and easier, and I had more time to devote to extracurricular activities and less stress and anxiety when I was an angsty hormonal teenager. Bonus!

So; when a friend of mine and her daughter started talking about how they recommend books to each other, I immediately thought of that day when I was nine, and what my mother did for me, and how it has affected me throughout my life. And because of my wonderful mother, and because of everything she has done for me, I’m now sharing the list with all my readers!

The Challenge:

  • Mark off the books you’ve already read
  • Discuss which books are appropriate to be read now, for whatever age or level of reading skill you are currently at
  • One by one, check the books out from the library, read them, and mark them off the list
  • See how many books on the list you can read before you turn 18, or before you turn 40, or before you die; whichever comes soonest.

I really think that’s everything I have to say about this. Now I need to go call my mom and tell her, again, how wonderful she is!

If you have an amazing story of how a traumatic or otherwise terrible event in your childhood has actually turned out for the good, Contact with your story, and you may see it featured on the site! (Also, free high-fives are always offered for good submissions.)


1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling

5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

6 The Bible

7  Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell

9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12 Tess of the D’urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

13 Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

14 The Complete Works of Shakespeare 

15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk

18 Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

19 The Time-Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch – George Eliot

21 Gone With the Wind – Margaret Mitchell

22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald

24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Graeme

31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

34 Emma – Jane Austen

35 Persuasion – Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis

37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres

39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

40 Winnie the Pooh – A.A. Milne

41 Animal Farm – George Orwell

42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

46 Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgommery

47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding

50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel

52 Dune – Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac

67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

72 Dracula – Bram Stoker

73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson

75 Ulysses – James Joyce

76 The Inferno – Dante

77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

78 Germinal – Emile Zola

79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

80 Possession – AS Byatt

81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker

84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

92 The Little Prince – Antoine St. Exupery

93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

94 Watership Down – Richard Adams

95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo


One thought on “How the worst ever career day helped change my life for the better

  1. Pingback: Deep Thoughts Q&A: What would my child self think of the adult I’ve grown up to be? |

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