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I recently volunteered at a Career Fair at a Youth Detention Center.  Girls and boys ranging in age from 13 to 17 were there for committing various crimes, including murder.  I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to tell them.  I didn’t want to give them the same speech I’m sure they’ve heard many times before about the importance of staying out of trouble and staying in school. I didn’t go there to tell them how to get a job with any particular employer.

I learned that many of the boys and girls came from troubled homes.  When I asked one group of boys if they had thought about what type of job or career they would like to have, a 13-year-old told me he wanted to be a juvenile delinquent. I later learned that his home life is so bad that he actually prefers to be at the detention center.  The last time he was released, I was told, he broke a store window so that he could return.  Some of the boys and girls, sadly, may never get their lives on course.  Those in for murder will leave there and go to prison.

In many of their eyes, though, I saw hope and promise.  Many of them will leave there and go on to achieve their dreams.  One girl who said she wants to be a lawyer lingered for a while and asked me a lot of questions about what it takes to become a lawyer and what the practice of law is about.  One very serious young man told me he wants to be a herpetologist.  I asked him to explain that to me and he very articulately told me about the study of reptiles and amphibians.  I had a strong feeling he will make it.

I had decided beforehand that I would talk to them about making good choices. As I thought about what really makes a difference in the course and direction of any of our lives, I realized it comes down to making good life decisions.  Most of the boys and girls had an idea of their career interests, but did they have a plan for how to turn their interests into reality? For that matter, do you?  The path that can help these troubled kids get back on track is the same path that can get any of us from where we are now to where we want to be:

1. Have a purpose.  Many of us have a vision or dream of what we would like to someday do in our lives.  A purpose is a vision with aim and direction.  Having a purpose means you know what you want to do and you have a determination to do it.  Your purpose can guide you into making the right decisions for your life. Living with a purpose means knowing who you are and believing in yourself.

2. Start with a plan. Once you know what you want to achieve, you have to have a plan to get there.  Will achieving your goal require retraining, going back to school, getting an internship?  How long will it take, and what type of resources will you need?  Do you know people who are already doing what you aspire to do? A plan can serve as a guide or blueprint for achieving your goals.

3. Make good choices.   I’m a big fan of Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  The first habit is “Be Proactive,” which focuses on taking responsibility for our choices and decisions.  Dr. Covey states that we have the freedom to choose our responses to circumstances and events in our lives.  Practicing this habit is difficult, but we can strongly influence our future by the choices we make.

I asked those young boys and girls at the Youth Detention Center if they had thought about how to achieve their career goals.  They knew they had to get an education in their chosen field and stay out of trouble. I asked them if, when they were younger and thought about what they wanted to be, they saw themselves at the detention center.  Of course they said “no.”  I told them they had gotten sidetracked from their plan.  We all get sidetracked from time to time on the way to achieving our goals. That sometimes happens when we lose sight of our purpose and make poor choices.

I told them that whenever they were faced with a choice or a decision, to ask themselves whether that choice would help them achieve their purpose, or whether it would sidetrack them.  Then, make the choice that keeps them on track. You may be thinking that these kids have a tough life and don’t really have any choices. Admittedly, there are times when people cannot see any way out of their circumstances.  But, we exercise our freedom to choose far less often than we could and should.

4. Develop and use a support system.  It’s important to surround ourselves with people who can help us make good choices and achieve our goals.  We can’t do it alone.  At work, seek out people who can serve as mentors for career development.  Consult with educators, industry professionals, friends, family members, or even the local bartender who can provide wise counsel and sound advice to help keep you on track.  Join a professional association, civic group, or book club as avenues for information, insight, and leads on moving in the right direction.

5. Persevere.  Rarely is the path to our destination a straight line. Instead, it may be a winding road or even a maze.  You may be tempted to abandon your goal and give up altogether.  You should evaluate along the way whether your goals have changed and whether you no longer desire to achieve your original purpose.  If that’s the case, give yourself permission to change your mind and pursue a different purpose.  Then, repeat steps 2 – 4, above!  If your original goal is still your dream, be patient and persistent and continue to work your plan.