Fall has finally arrived here in Berkeley. It’s a time of year that brings crisp and cool nights, the return of cozy chunky sweaters, and, to the joy of so many of us, the return of Starbucks’ beloved Pumpkin Spice Latte. It’s also a time of year when I get a flurry of calls into my office from anxious, pressured and confused about-to-be graduates and professionals of all ages and industries saying, “I JUST DON’T KNOW WHAT I WANT TO BE WHEN I GROW UP!” As a psychotherapist, what I know personally and professionally is that this question – “What do I want to be when I grow up?” – is one of the biggest that we ALL wrestle with at one time or another.
I don’t know about you, but the first time I was asked that question I definitely didn’t answer, “A therapist!” (pretty sure I didn’t even know what a therapist was at age five). Instead I probably said something like, “actress/President/witch/Indiana Jones!” and then spent the next several decades taking test after personality test, trying to find The Perfect Career Path, and feeling frustrated that everyone else seemed to be able to answer that question, but me.
Over the years, I’ve navigated through a mire of confusion, expectations, and what I thought I *should* be to arrive at what really seems to be my dream career. And what I now know both personally and professionally is that this question – What do I want to be when I grow up? – is one of the biggest that we all wrestle with at one time or another.
The story of how and why I became a therapist is a blog post for another time, but I share this – my own decades-long struggle to answer the question – in case you feel like you’re the only one who hasn’t answered The Question yet. Believe me, you’re not. Not in the least.
And while I don’t know what the answer to this question will be for you, in today’s post I want to share three tools and three resources that I found particularly valuable in my own journey toward answering the question, in the hope that they’ll support you in arriving at your own answers.
Three Tools To Help You Answer The Question.
1. Do You Want a Handmade Quilt or a Pottery Barn Duvet?
There’s something I really want you to hear:
Careers aren’t formulaic anymore, and a job that may be absolutely perfect for you might not even exist yet. And, when it comes to quality and fulfillment versus instant gratification in our career paths, we’ve basically all got the choice between a homemade quilt career or a Pottery Barn duvet career.
A Pottery Barn duvet is pre-made and you know when you walk into any Pottery Barn store you can grab one off the shelf, the quality will be good, and you’ll likely be warm and comfy when you take it home that night. A handmade quilt on the other hand, may take years to craft, may be riddled with imperfections and missed stitches, and yet, when it’s complete, it’s a deep expression of your truest self and a real creative original. I think career paths are a lot like this, too.
And, not that there is anything at all wrong with a Pottery Barn-duvet-career-path, if what you’re longing for is a career path that’s going to be a true extension of yourself, it may take more time and effort to craft this kind of path than the paths of your peers who chose something different. And sometimes, quite frankly, your choice to go after a handmade quilt path might feel lonely, frustrating, and overwhelming (it sure has been for me at times!). The trade-off though, is when you put the time into deeply reflecting on what it is you want to craft of your life’s work, and then the effort into creating this, the pay-off is that you end up with a career that’s a lot like a gorgeous, heirloom quilt. The message here? Quality and fulfillment in a career path take time and there’s not a formula when it comes to figuring out what you want to be when you grow up.
2. Design From the Inside Out.
Confession: Through most of my twenties I had a mild obsession with personality and career tests. You name it, I probably tried it in my quest to find The Perfect Career Path. I liked to believe that if I took enough tests The Answer would appear and I would suddenly know what I should be. But you know what? While many of those tests were helpful in some small way, they only measured my aptitudes. They didn’t account for four factors I now know are absolutely critical in designing a fulfilling career path:
- Innate Temperament
- Preferred Lifestyle
- Soul’s Mission
- (and yes) Aptitudes
I could write a whole series of blog posts on these four questions alone because they’re complex, rich, and fascinating (also the crux of the career counseling work we do with clients). For now though, I want you to consider that in addition to what it is you may be naturally good at, it’s just as if not more important to provide honest-to-goodness truthful answers to each of these questions:
- What do you know you’re emotionally and temperamentally predisposed for? What kind of stresses and trade-offs are you willing to tolerate given that all careers, even dream ones, have them.
- What you want out of a lifestyle? Geography, income potential, contact with others, creativity, etc?
- What you feel called to do/heal/serve/be on the planet? What’s been the overarching narrative of your life so far? What can’t you help but be?
- What you know you’re naturally good at? Which of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences do you have? What do all those other personality tests list as your natural aptitudes?
Each of these questions is like a building block that you want to get crystal clear on and build upon to answer the question “What do I want to be when I grow up?”
3. Act, Get Curious, Course Correct, Repeat.
Something I hear often from our clients is this: “Well, maybe if I just think about it a little longer then I’d *really* know what I want to be when I grow up.” It doesn’t always work like that. I truly believe that thinking and reflecting on what you want to be helps only to a certain point, and then you’ve got to get out there in the world and take action – whether that’s a series of jobs, volunteering, taking classes, etc. – in order to truly learn the answer to this question.
With every experience, you’re going to have a reaction – maybe a good reaction, maybe a bad reaction, maybe you’ll feel it in your body or hear a big ol’ “heck no!” inside your head. Regardless, when you use the contrast of these experiences, when you get curious about the clues contained in your reactions, you’ll be able use this information to course correct when necessary to get you closer to what it is your truly want to be. You can’t figure out what your dream career is by staying in your head; you have to go out in the world, try things on, reflect and learn from the contrast of your experiences, and course correct. Is this comfortable? Not always. Is it effective? Absolutely. Nothing, in my opinion, beats lived experience and using the information you gather along the way to refine and redesign your path.
My Invitation For You:
We’ve covered a lot of material today and explored a few tools that might be helpful for you in answering the question, “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” As we close today, I’d like to ask you what you know about this topic for yourself:
- What, if anything, has helped you get clearer on your career path?
- What would your kindergarten-aged self have answered to the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question? Is the essence of that answer still relevant today?
- When it comes to the four building blocks categories, did any of them surprise you?
Leave me a comment below and let me know what your thoughts are to these questions, or to any other part of the blog. And finally, I want you to remember: we’re aiming for progress here, not perfection, so be patient with yourself in answering this question.
See you the Sunday after next!
- The Pathfinder by Nicholas Lore (#1 resource I recommend to all my clients wrestling with this question).
- So What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? Workbook by Martha Beck.
- Little Red Shoes audiobook by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.