Finding a Career: What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

Figuring Out What You Want to Do

Figuring out what you want to do and what you are good at is something we’re asked to do from the time we are little, and people start asking: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Most of us may have answered that question with a job or a title. And we never stop wondering if we got it right.

Careers As Incremental Goals?

The other day, I had a great conversation with someone who is building an app that helps you manage your career. I asked him to tell me about it. His story is worth understanding.

“Careers,” he said, “are a combination of short term, medium term, and long-range goals. In order to get where you want to go, you develop the big picture, figure out the intermediate steps, and build a series of items on your right-now-career to-do checklist. Our app will give you input on how to get where you want to go.”

“So,” I said, “all you need to do is know what you want, imagine the steps required to get there, then do simple little things every day. Right?”

He nodded enthusiastically. “I know we can change the world with this. Imagine what would happen if everyone used our app. We would change lives. I think we could change the world.”

Careers As Aptitudes?

We talked about the kinds of aptitude tests you can take to help you see what you might want. An aptitude test, by definition, is any type of assessment that evaluates your talent/ability/potential to perform a certain task with no prior knowledge or training. Aptitude tests can suggest career areas that you’d be good at. The theory is that you ought to do things you’d be good at.

There is a significant debate about whether aptitude tests work. One’s ability to be good at something has to intersect with the desire and opportunity to be good at it for the magic to happen. It might be reasonable to say that an aptitude test is a forecast rather than a direction. If you are good at something, you may well end up doing that thing in a variety of settings.

In college, the aptitude tests all suggested that I would be good in engineering or the ministry. I was frightened by technical things and uncertain about religion. I could not imagine that my future would have anything to do with these arenas. I was sure the tests were wrong.

Yet, my work has always involved helping people learn and understand difficult things and ideas. I like figuring out how stuff works. I like making complex ideas easier to comprehend. When I think about it, I have built a career based on my aptitudes. Understanding and explaining complicated things is exactly at the intersection of Engineering and the Ministry.

If you are fortunate enough to be a top student who goes to a good school and lives in an area with lots of economic opportunity, the big goal, medium goal, little goal framework will work for you. You might even be fortunate enough to understand and agree with the results of your aptitude test.

Careers As Meeting Practical Needs?

If you are like the rest of us, a career is a different story. Figuring out what you want isn’t quite so straight-forward. Where the traditional way of thinking works for the lucky few, the rest of us figure out what we want through discovery, experimentation, mistake making, and sheer dumb luck (you might take a little comfort in knowing that the disciplined goal makers also need a healthy dose of sheer dumb luck).

Rather than some sort of comprehensive vision delivered like sunlight breaking through the clouds, most of us figure out what we want in an elaborate version of the Goldilocks story. Goldilocks tried a series of alternatives, settling on the one that was just right. A career is usually the process of starting somewhere, finding the things you like, and moving towards those things.

Often, big goals are a luxury and somewhat optional. Feeding the family, paying the bills, raising the children, and working in the community come first.

Knowing exactly what you want and being able to do just that is usually a luxury and may come at the expense of more practical priorities.

Where To Start?

No matter where you are in your career exploration, you don’t have to give up on your aptitudes or wanting to do work you enjoy and that matters to you. The very trick to knowing what you want when you don’t (or can’t) have big visions is really simple.

  • Identify the two or three things in your life that make you feel good.
  • Learn more about them.
  • Find ways to do things that make you better at them.

Whatever situation you are in, use it as an opportunity to learn more about the things you love.

You’ll know that it’s time to make the next move when you’ve stopped learning and growing in those areas.

The very best thing you can do with your time is to discover what you enjoy and find ways to do more of that. The question is not really: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It is: “What do you want to try next?”

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