INTRODUCTION: How can we best encourage students who have no idea what career to pursue?  I have taught English and Success Strategies for College and Life at Brevard Community College for nine years, and each time my students and I explore potential careers, a quick raise of hands demonstrates that at least half do not know their future major or career field.  Unfortunately, these students often lack the motivation a career goal offers, and they feel judged by others who constantly ask, “What do you want to do with your life?”  I have used a number of methods to help students discover possible career paths—career assessments, occupational research reports, draw your dreams—but I wanted a way to help them understand that it’s all right if they don’t know right now what they want to do with their lives.

That’s when I developed the “Dreams and Careers Game,” a game I have used many times to familiarize my students with the stories of successful people who, when younger, had no idea what careers they would pursue.  The activity takes approximately 40 minutes and could be used in a first-year orientation, student success, leadership, or career exploration class. In other disciplines, it could be adapted to demonstrate that people now prominent in an academic field (e.g., math, biology, anthropology, etc.) did not necessarily know in their first year of college what field they wanted to pursue.


  • Help students realize they can have successful careers even if they don’t presently have a career in mind or feel successful now
  • Create an opportunity for collaborative fun among students


  • Copies of the “Dreams and Careers Game” handout for half the class (see Support Materials below)
  • PowerPoint slide of the “Dreams and Careers Game” handout (or other way to project for the whole class to see)
  • Two Debrief Questions: on a handout, overhead, or PowerPoint (see Support Materials below)
  • Five mints, sticks of gum, or candy (for prizes)


1.  Say, “Has anyone ever asked you, ‘So what do you want to do when you get out of school?’   If you know the answer, then you’re probably happy to share it.  But what if you don’t know the answer?”  Give a personal example or an example of someone you know who was caught in the frustrating limbo of uncertainty about career choices.  Then introduce the game: “We’re going to play a game that explores what happened to seven people who were unsure of their futures.”  (5 minutes)

2.  Project the Dreams and Careers Game handout for all to see and give an overview of the game: “In a few moments, I’m going to give you a handout which, like the one projected on the screen, contains the names of seven highly successful people and seven mini-biographies that tell their stories.  In teams of four, your goal will be to match the story with the person.  Once you match all seven, you win.”  At this point, focus the overhead viewer on only the names (covering up the mini bios).  Review the seven successful people by reading their accomplishments off the handout.  For example, “David Boies is a high-profile lawyer, represented VP Al Gore, Microsoft, NFL, IBM.”  (5 minutes)

3.  Form groups of four. Say, “Because I want you to work together, I’m going to give each group only two copies of the handout, so two can read side by side.  In the end, you will make your matches as a group, so be sure to discuss your guesses as a group.  You’ll read the mini-biographies and then match the story to the person by placing the number of the story beside the person’s name.  Once your group has completed the matches, call me over, and I’ll tell you how many are correct.  I won’t, however, tell you which ones are correct.  You may guess as many times as you’d like until we have a winner.  And I do have prizes for the winning group.  Here’s a tip: if you read the biographies carefully, you’ll notice little clues that will help you make the match.  Before I give you the handouts, what questions do you have?”  (5 minutes)

4.  Distribute handout facedown, two to a group.  Say, “Don’t turn the handout over until I tell you to.  I want you all to begin at the same time.”  Once the handouts have been given to each pair, instruct them to begin.  When a group has its seven matches, check to see how many are correct.  If the matches are not all correct, tell the group how many are right, but not which ones.  Encourage groups to look for clues and to talk over possible choices.  Once a group has matched all seven correctly, announce, “We have a winner!”  (10 to 15 minutes)

5.  Say: “I think there are some valuable insights to be found in these stories,” and, briefly, review the highlights from the descriptions on the handout (e.g., David Boise was a surfer-construction worker before turning into one of our most prominent lawyers).   Then say, “Please take five minutes to answer these two questions in your journal (or on a sheet of paper).”  (10 minutes)

  • What do these stories tell you about how some people become successful in their careers?
  • How do you relate your own life to these stories?

6.  Lead a class discussion on the insights the students gleaned from the game.  Start with the questions they answered in writing.  Additional debriefing questions include “What’s unique about the career paths these people took?  What do you think could have possibly changed them from the way they were to what they ultimately became?  What’s the most important lesson you take away from these stories?”  At the end of the discussion, award the winning group with a prize—gum, pens, etc.  Make a big show of it; have fun.  (10 minutes)


Similar to the many other times I have done this activity, the students in one class all seemed engaged.  I heard some make guesses and others explain why the match was correct or incorrect.  There was laughter.  Some students shared their knowledge of a particular person.  “Yeah, she was the first space shuttle captain.”  “He was in that movie with . . .”   Soon, they were eagerly asking me to check their guesses.  Most groups had two to four matches correct. They were disappointed when they didn’t get all the guesses right, but they went right back to figuring out where they’d gone wrong.  After ten minutes, I reminded them to look for the clues—hints within the stories that would lead them to the correct match.   

Thirteen minutes in, a group correctly matched all six.  Though I announced we had a winner, most groups kept trying to guess.  As I was about to read the correct answers to the whole class, one group asked me to look at their guesses (so I’d know they’d guessed right before I gave them the answers).  When I read the answers to the class, I briefly reminded them who the successful people were before they were accomplished and who they became after succeeding in their career.  As I did, I began to ask them to recall different pieces of the person’s story—e.g., “What grade was he in when his teacher told him that?”  “What level was her self-esteem as a child?”  When the students answered my questions, they emphasized the struggles each person had—poverty, lack of focus, mistakes, misspent energy—before becoming successful.

When I offered the two-question debrief, I was surprised by how much the students wrote.  While a few stopped writing after a couple of minutes, most wrote for nearly the full five minutes.  In the discussion, I asked what they had learned from the stories.  One young male said, “It’s never too late to succeed.”  Another said, “Even when it doesn’t seem like you have anything going on in your life, you can still do amazing things.”  One young female who knew her career choice said she couldn’t really identify with the stories because she’d never experienced what they had.  Another young female said the stories proved that not everybody knows what they want to do with their lives, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be successful.       


The first outcome I wanted to achieve was to help students realize they can have successful careers even if they don’t presently have a career in mind or feel successful now.  After the activity, 17 out of my 19 students wrote, in some variation, that they can still be successful even if they don’t know their particular career path.  Many also indicated that they can be successful in the future whether they feel successful now or not. Here are some of the written responses:  

  • It’s never too late to improve and make something of yourself.
  • You don’t always have to know exactly what you want, and even if you make mistakes, you can still be successful.
  • Some of them didn’t have a clue about what they wanted to do, some felt discouraged by other people. . . . These stories tell me that those people were actually just like me.
  • They had issues . . . but they changed their way by standing and making a step forward.

One student couldn’t relate to the stories and wrote:

  • I don’t [relate] because I don’t mess around. . . . I have been buckled down since 6th grade and that is how I am going to get the career I want.

Additionally, I wanted the students to collaborate and have fun, which they did—reading in pairs or groups at first, and then discussing in their groups of four to come up with the answers.  There was laughter, eager faces, group members leaning toward one another, looking each other in the eye, pointing to the paper they worked on, and playful competitiveness (“Check us first!” or “We got four right. They only got two.”).

One student at the end of class asked if I could return her written response to her when I was finished with it.  I asked her why, and she said because she liked what she’d written.  Here’s what she wrote:

. . . you don’t always have to know exactly what you’re going to do in life.  Sometimes you have to experience different things to realize what it is that you want to do.  Also, sometimes it takes you messing up to learn (learning from your mistakes makes you stronger).  It’s never too late to improve. . . .  Right now I’m still trying to figure out what career is truly right for me, so I am using my different experiences in life to figure out what makes me happy, so I can look for that in a career.  Also, it’s okay to mess up sometimes.


The students’ written responses clearly demonstrated their understanding of the key themes in these stories: that at an early age not everyone knows what career they want to pursue, that some who seem unlikely to succeed still do, that often times chance and experience play a major role in the directions of our lives, that staying on course and earning a college degree can help people find their careers, and that even if people make self-sabotaging decisions in their lives, they can still change.  It surprised me that the one student, who’d worked hard since sixth grade, was bothered by the stories because she believed that some of these successful people had “lucked” into their careers instead of working their way up.  Some students did comment—half jokingly—that they learned partying helps people decide their careers.  In retrospect, this may have been a good opportunity to explore the decisions we make, which ones help us achieve our goals and which ones don’t.  Overall, though, I believe this activity gave undecided students and struggling students a new outlook on their futures: they realized that a successful career is possible even though it may not presently feel like it.  I will definitely use this strategy again. 

Finally, the students’ responses confirmed for me that students yearn for purpose and direction in their lives.  For example, when the student wanted what she’d written back, I later confirmed with her that she wanted her response because she saw it as a guiding insight that would help her realize her dreams.  Other student responses conveyed a similar longing.  For instance, one student wrote that s/he could identify with the struggles some of the successful people had gone through.  “I’m in that process right now,” the student wrote.  “This is my second time around.  I’m gonna make the best out of it to become successful.”  Most wished they knew the career they wanted to pursue, but after the activity they understood that not knowing right now in their lives did not mean they were destined to fail.  Reading their comments reaffirmed to me that this activity, our success strategies classes, and what we do as educators is tremendously valuable and life changing.


The stories were adapted from Marlo Thomas’ The Right Words at the Right Time (Atria Books, 2002) and Bio: True Story (“Whoopi Goldberg Biography.”  Retrieved April 8, 2011).



Match the Story with the Person it describes:

1. In high school, played around a lot: surfing, racing cars, playing cards, partying.  Graduated high school with no intention of going to college, married, took a construction job, had a child, and lived the beach life—all before beginning career.

2. Our person grew up a poor city kid, suffered from dyslexia and later drug addiction, dropped out of school at 17, married and had a kid.  Then, at 19, divorced and a single parent, moved across the country with a simple yearning to be more in life.

3. This person was a nerd turned hoodlum in junior high.  By high school, was a druggie, prankster and a terror for teachers, administration, and even police.  Then one day a math teacher said, “Instead of being so obnoxious all the time—instead of wasting all that energy in class—why don’t you re-channel your hostility and humor into something more productive?  Have you ever thought about. . . .”  And the teacher suggested a career the kid would ultimately succeed in.

4. As a kid, suffered from low self-esteem, lack of confidence, insecurity and depression.  One day dad, trying to motivate, said, “You know, you’ve got to reach for the stars.”  For some reason, the phrase stuck.  Went to college but dropped out to pursue dream of being a professional tennis player, did well, but realized couldn’t make it to the top.  Returned to college, graduated, and found career.

5. Moved to U.S. at 18, but was placed into junior high because of language barrier.  Liked to draw and paint and made A’s in art, but made F’s and D’s in other classes.  Life changed when art teacher said, “There’s no room for anyone giving 50%.  You should do 150%.  Whatever you’re doing or whatever you’re trying to be.  Whether you’re a painter or a musician or a fireman.”  When he said that, our person started to cry because “a person was seeing right through me for the first time.”  Not long after the experience, the person pursued a career.

6. After college, “where I had spent four years majoring in Identity Crisis and Self-Absorption, with a minor in Poetry and Daydreaming,” our person was stuck.  “No plan, no driving impulses.”  Moved back in with parents and one day father asked, “What is it you love?  Where is the most adventurous place you could do it?  And are you certain it will serve other people?”  Following that advice, our person found the career.

7. As a kid, person’s family lost its money and the future was uncertain.  Our person’s sister, attending a journalism college, had her tuition already paid for, but the sister didn’t want to finish it.  Our person went to the school and demanded the money back.  When the school refused, our person took the classes instead of the sister, and a career was born.

Place corresponding number by the person of your choice.

__John Leguizamo, comedian, director, movie actor, Carlito’s Way, The Lincoln Lawyer, Repo Man

__Dr. Sally Ride, first American woman shuttle astronaut and Professor of Physics         

__David Boies, high-profile lawyer, represented VP Al Gore, Microsoft, NFL, IBM 

__Christiane Amanpour, news anchor, veteran foreign correspondent

__Carlos Santana, legendary guitar-playing rock musician

__Whoopi Goldberg, comedian, actress, Oscar-Tony-Grammy-Emmy winner

__Diane Sawyer, ABC news reporter, anchor of Primetime Live and Good Morning America.



Place corresponding number by the person of your choice.

_3_John Leguizamo, comedian, director, movie actor, Carlito’s Way, The Lincoln Lawyer, Repo Man

_4_Dr. Sally Ride, first American woman shuttle astronaut and Professor of Physics     

_1_David Boies, high-profile lawyer, represented VP Al Gore, Microsoft, NFL, IBM 

_7_Christiane Amanpour, news anchor, veteran foreign correspondent

_5_Carlos Santana, legendary guitar-playing rock musician

_2_Whoopi Goldberg, comedian, actress, Oscar-Tony-Grammy-Emmy winner

_6_Diane Sawyer, ABC news reporter, anchor of Primetime Live and Good Morning America.


Answer the following questions:


What do these stories tell you about how people become successful in their careers?


How do you relate your own life to these stories?


–Mark McBride, Faculty, English and College Success Coordinator, Eastern Florida State College, FL

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