Are you still trying to figure out what you want to be when you grow up? Many people are, young and old. And if you think you already know, ask yourself again to make sure the answer hasn’t changed.
Adults frequently ask this of young people. When I was a teenager, I tried to come up with one-word answers that sounded impressive and drew nods of approval. My answers were usually well-known, socially-acceptable jobs. I rarely felt secure enough to answer truthfully, “I really don’t know, but I’m trying hard to figure it out. I’m kinda hoping someone wise will just tell me what I should do.”
I now realize that most adults pose this question as a simple conversation starter and a way to get to know a young person’s ambitions. The comic Paula Poundstone opined that the adults are actually looking for ideas! But when I was young, I experienced this simple-sounding query as an insecurity-inducing challenge from the mysterious world of adulthood. Was I supposed to know already? Was there a wrong answer? And when exactly am I grown up?
Many people choose careers at a young age that fit into easily identifiable professions, like doctor or judge, or simply try to make as much money as possible. “I want to be rich” seems to be a very popular profession these days. And as they enter the workforce, many seek to acquire ever more prestigious titles. The pressure to have a good answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is replaced by the perennial cocktail conversation starter, “So what do you do?” I suspect that many people chose a profession that sounded like a good answer to these questions and now find themselves miserable. Not a surprising result when you allocate disproportionate weight to an approving nod from a stranger, while discounting the internal nudge to explore a different path.
Titles are useful. They can bestow power and access, elicit an emotional response, and fit easily into a list of goals (“I want to become a corporate VP”). But they tend to narrowly define a job’s scope rather than offer an answer to our search for a meaningful life.
While in college, I imagined that a critical component of becoming a successful adult was to acquire a socially acceptable job title and make a reasonable amount, preferably a lot, of money. With this framework in mind, I listed three professions that seemed like possible fits: lawyer, sports doctor, and college professor. I also crossed out several others that intrigued me, but seemed either out of reach or not “real jobs”: professional athlete, world traveler, adventurer, and professional writer. I supplemented the list with the addendum, “Help others and improve the world.”
Over the ensuing years, I did not earn any of these professional titles at an authoritative institution. Instead, I eventually found my way into a 14-year career at Intel, holding a variety of corporate titles I hadn’t even heard of when I was in college. I assumed that my old list of potential professions was no longer relevant, because I had already made my decision. I knew I wouldn’t become any of them. At times, I felt a vague sense of inadequacy.
But I began to notice an interesting pattern. I wasn’t a professional athlete, but I made time to compete in amateur events like marathons and Ironman triathlons. I wasn’t a sports doctor, but I studied anatomy and physiology to improve as an endurance athlete. I wasn’t a professional writer, but I ghost wrote a “think piece” for the CEO of Intel that was published in a magazine. I wasn’t a lawyer, but I became familiar with international and corporate law and applied what I learned while working on business deals for Intel. I wasn’t a college professor, but I studied technology trends and hoped to challenge and inspire people in talks I gave at business conferences. And while I wasn’t a National Geographic-sponsored adventurer, I did take a two-month sabbatical from work and cycled unsupported 2,500 miles across Japan with my eight-year old son, raising money for an environmental charity.
Although I had let go of the ambition to seek any of those specific titles as a career, I retained the spark of curiosity that had led me to add each one to the list in the first place. And I realized that, without a conscious decision to do so, I had integrated parts of each into my personal and professional activities. A person creates his or her life like a quilter, stitching together a patchwork of skills, knowledge, experience, interests, commitments and goals. This entails a lifetime of experiments, surprises, fits and starts, course corrections, and new beginnings. It can be messy, wonderful, and hard to sum up with a simple descriptor.
When I finally decided to stop working at Intel in 2011, I bestowed upon myself the title of “endurance athlete, family adventurer and writer.” I wanted the title to reflect my life decisions, rather than adjusting my life decisions to a title bestowed upon me by a workplace. That was a first for me, and it felt right.
Your job title may represent your life’s most meaningful work. If so, congratulations! Or it may just describe what you do to pay your mortgage. Perhaps it was taken away from you when your employer decided to downsize. Regardless of your situation, your work title is not a state of being. Rather, it is a reflection of your role in the business model in which you are operating. And at any given moment, it may change for the better or worse through your own actions or a decision outside your control.
So, what do you want to be when you grow up? If you don’t know, or if you answered this question long ago with a simple job category or title, dig deeper. Ask yourself:
- “What kind of person do I want to be?”
- “How can I improve the world?”
- “What hard problems do I want to try to solve?”
- “Am I integrating my strengths and interests into my career?”
- “What do I want to do with the gift of life?”
Don’t be surprised if your answers are complex, nuanced, and demand a deeper understanding of yourself. And don’t expect the answers to remain static either. Asking what you want to be when you grow up is not just a flippant question for children. Answering it is the work of a lifetime.
Charles Scott is an endurance athlete and family adventurer. He spent 14 years working at Intel Corporation before deciding to focus his energy full-time on writing, speaking and doing endurance challenges with his family linked to environmental causes. While working at Intel, he competed in five Ironman triathlons, eight marathons and many multi-sport and adventure races. In the summer of 2009, he and his eight-year old son Sho rode connected bicycles the length of mainland Japan, covering 2,500 miles in 67 days. They were named “Climate Heroes” by the United Nations as they raised money for a global tree planting campaign. And in the summer of 2011, he cycled 1,500 miles around Iceland on connected bicycles with his ten-year old son and four-year old daughter, once again sponsored by the UN as "Climate Heroes": www.icelandbikeadventure.com. Charles is writing a book about the Japan ride called Rising Son. If you would like to receive a free excerpt and receive updates on his latest writings, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.