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Cat cafés and career choices

| Tuesday, August 18, 2020

In kindergarten, my answer to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was a teacher, maybe a veterinarian. In first grade, it suddenly became President of the United States. 

That abrupt switch echoed the sentiments of many of the adults in my life who lauded me by remarking on how much potential I had. When I tagged along to the Iowa Caucuses at age seven and was upset I couldn’t cast a vote myself, adults laughed and told me not to worry because people would be voting for me one day. When I gave a speech at my eighth grade graduation ceremony, my teacher introduced me by calling me “future Senator Konfrst.” All my life, I’ve been told about all of the important things I’m going to do one day. Now, at twenty years old, I’m realizing that maybe doing something important just won’t make me happy.

If you’re anything like me, the last several months have been filled with a healthy dose of self-reflection and an unhealthy dose of anxiety about the future. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in mid-March, I was in Washington, D.C. as part of Notre Dame’s Washington Program. If you’re unfamiliar, the Washington Program requires students to complete a full-time internship in D.C., creating a more career-centric experience than you can usually get on campus. I had an incredible time in D.C., and was heartbroken to be packing my bags and saying goodbye to the city earlier than I expected.

My time in D.C. was enlightening to me in a lot of ways. I had a great experience at my internship and I learned a lot, but there was one thing I kept going back to. Did I actually enjoy what I was doing for eight hours every day? Regardless of how good the internship would look on my resume, or how much I cared about the cause I was working toward, I just didn’t really like going to work. I didn’t find my daily responsibilities all that engaging or challenging or fun, and I spent most of my day waiting for the clock to strike 5:00.

I considered this as I sat in my parents’ living room sometime mid-April (regrettably) binge-watching “Outer Banks.” In making my five-year, 10-year, 20-year life plans, I never actually thought about whether I’d like what I was doing. I thought about doing government work because I could be closely involved in politics, I thought about running for office because I know I’m good at public speaking, I thought about working in nonprofits because it seemed like a more direct way to make change. Ultimately, though, I thought about all of these career paths because they felt important. 

However, I had realized that the satisfaction of putting something important like “intern at Washington, D.C. nonprofit” was far exceeded by the frustration of spending eight hours a day doing work I didn’t really enjoy. Before this year, I wasn’t even considering if I liked what I spent my days doing, let alone things like work-life balance and finding satisfaction outside of a career.

As I reconnected with friends at home and stayed in touch with college friends, I started to notice I wasn’t the only person who felt this way. My friends and I would fantasize about abandoning the careers we had spent our entire lives working toward so we could move to rural Washington and start a cat café. It seemed that a lot of people I knew were questioning their pursuit of careers that were deemed important — if not for a cat café, maybe just for a quieter life and less flashy career. 

Most strikingly, I started to notice the way these feelings were gendered in a lot of ways. Make no mistake, this issue was common among nearly everyone I talked to, especially high-achieving students who attend schools like Notre Dame. Among women, however, there was a prevailing sense that if we didn’t pursue an important career, not only were we wasting our potential, we were letting down all women. My entire life, it’s been subconsciously drilled into me that a woman’s career choice was a feminist act. Women who pursued high-powered, important careers at all costs were role models of female empowerment, while those who opted for a more subdued career were seen as succumbing to the patriarchy.

As an ardent feminist, this association adds to my anxiety about pursuing an important career. It feels like I have some obligation to pursue an important career because I think that women generally should pursue important careers, even if I would be happier doing something else. It’s only been in these last few months that I’ve begun to shake that burden.

None of this is to say that I won’t go to law school or run for office or work in nonprofits. However, I now see the importance of choosing jobs because I’ll actually enjoy going to work, or pursuing a career that allows me to have time off for family and friends. I’m not really any closer to knowing what career I want to pursue, but I know whatever I choose it will be primarily in the pursuit of a happy life. A lot of students I meet at Notre Dame struggle with incorporating questions of joy in their career discernment, but if you’re reading this, I encourage you to try. Your career doesn’t have to be something that will impress your friends at your high school reunion, or something that looks great on LinkedIn. Even if you wouldn’t be happy owning a cat café, don’t rule it out just because it doesn’t sound important enough — rule it out because something else will make you happier.

Ellie Konfrst is a junior majoring in political science, with minors in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service and civil & human rights. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited that people will finally be forced to listen to all of her extremely good takes. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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