The Problem(s) With Trying to Figure Out What to be When You Grow Up


When I was seven, I wanted to be a writer. The older I got, the less I knew what I wanted to be, and the more stuck I got.

I spent years trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I kept getting stuck because I was terrified of getting it “wrong.” I only had a vague idea of what I wanted, and since what I wanted didn’t seem to exist, I stayed where I was until I couldn’t stand it any longer. (Being a life coach wasn’t a “thing” when I went to college.)

If it turns out we don’t like what we chose, it can seem daunting to change jobs or industries or careers. And if we have a house and kids, then we’re really under the gun to make the bad career work OR, if we’re going to make a change, it must be exactly right. Otherwise, we believe it’s too costly to give up the lifestyle we’re accustomed to. That can make it really hard to play and experiment with ideas.

Here’s why.

Expectations that are … dumb and the pressure to “get it right.” For some reason, we tell kids and ourselves that we have to take the right classes, get into the right college, choose the right major, find the right career and land the right job. We believe our lives will be ruined if we don’t make the right choice. We put tremendous pressure on ourselves to make the one-and-only right choice. I know I kept telling myself that there was One True Path.

It’s actually a lot of BS.

First of all, why would any young adult with little life experience know what they want to do when they “grow up”? All we can really do is make our best guess. It seems ludicrous to expect anything else. Yet, we have set up an educational system that demands people declare a major at the age of 19 or 20. At that age, my experience consisted of scooping cookie dough and freezing my ass off teaching six-year-olds to swim.

Some people get lucky and figure it out, but most of us do not. Judging by these statistics, most people wander around for a while:

  • Only 27 percent of college graduates work in a field related to their major.

  • The average person will change careers 5-7 times

  • According to the Bureau of Labor and statistics, the average person will have 11.7 jobs between the time they are 18 and 48.

Aside from indicating that our education system isn’t designed for today’s world, these statistics also show that most of us don’t actually know what we want to do when we leave college. The problem, in my opinion, isn’t that we need to get better at choosing. We need to get better at playing, experimenting and take the pressure off. The expectations are killing us.

Therein lies the problem. When our lives don’t live up to these expectations, we often assume we’ve failed in some way, which then makes it even more difficult to look objectively at what’s available to us.

Second, the attitude that we have to “get it right” sets us up for failure in many ways. By assuming there’s a right way, we automatically limit our thinking and options. All this pressure to get it right shuts down possibility, imagination and chutzpah. When we shut down access to that part of the brain, it’s difficult to come up with any ideas of what we might want to do. So if you’re wondering why you haven’t been able to “figure it out,” this could be one of the reasons.

(Side note and rant: It drives me bananas when people expect kids to figure out what they should be when they have very limited information and experience between the ages of 18-22. But it drives me even more bananas when kids aren’t allowed to pursue their interests, and instead, are pushed in the direction of a “practical” degree. There is nothing practical about ignoring your interests and pursuing something you are forcing yourself to care about.)

Myths & Misinformation

The Security Myth

The idea that there’s a right path also assumes that we know what jobs will exist and still be viable in the future.

We don’t.

Technology changes what we do and how we do it so quickly, that we actually don’t know what jobs will exist in ten years, or how our talents might be needed in future professions. As far as anyone can predict, what we need most is adaptability and flexibility, creativity, the ability to learn and an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving. Cross-pollination with other fields is helpful; specialization isn’t.

In February 2019, I participated in the massive GM layoffs. The division that had the most layoffs? IT. Who’d’ve thunk being in IT wouldn’t be safe and secure? Furthermore, who’d’ve thunk working for a big corporate entity wouldn’t have been safe and secure? Well, it wasn’t. Many of the people I spoke to who got laid off were middle-aged white, many who held master’s degrees.

There is no foolproof plan. That may sound terrifying, but it’s also freeing. Once we let go of trying to find the right answer, we can search for many answers and possibilities that might appeal to us more.

The Reality Myth

Like I said, I wanted to be a writer when I was seven. Over the years, however, I absorbed all the messages from society, Hollywood, teachers, you name it, that becoming a writer is hard. You know, there’s the whole “starving artist” story. Being a writer just didn’t seem realistic, and so I found jobs that were adjacent to being a writer: teaching, copyediting, communications, and content marketing.

The only problem was that I didn’t like the type of writing I did in those jobs. I kind of hated it.

All my creative energy went into writing comments on student papers. When I moved into marketing and communications, I found that being clear, something I valued, was frowned upon. Or, I found myself trying to write about things I neither cared about nor understood: health insurance administrative claims data, the Medicare reimbursement rate for services, cloud server storage.

It’s pretty difficult to write about something you don’t understand. And what I had come to believe was good writing was not, so I began to doubt my abilities. I even had one boss say that I was a good editor, but not very good at generating original content. It was a blow to my ego, even though I knew it was because I didn’t really understand the material.

While in theory I had the right skills, I didn’t have the right interests (or the right attitude). Skills can be learned, knowledge can be learned, experience can be gained. What you can’t really teach is interest, desire or you know, chutzpah.

The “reality” that it’s hard to make it as a _______ (whatever you want) misses a critical component of success: desire. You know what’s really, really hard and probably causes cancer? Working 40-60 hours/week in a stressful job in a dysfunctional environment in a field and role you don’t particularly enjoy for 30 years. That’s hard.

You know what’s hard about making it as a ________(whatever you want)? It’s uncertain, which makes it scary. It’s a risk, not to our pocketbooks (like we tell ourselves), but to our hearts. To do what we really want takes courage. Actually, even knowing what we want takes courage.

Blind Spots & Pride

In addition to the crippling pressure we may put on ourselves to “get it right,” we may also punish ourselves for getting it “wrong.” We may believe we made a mistake that we should’ve had the foresight to avoid. Or, now that we’ve made our choice, we have to stick with it, no matter how miserable it makes us and the people around us.

That’s the ego trying to protect us from looking silly by keeping us stuck in what’s familiar. If what we want goes against the messages we absorbed growing up about what’s realistic, possible, and secure, yeah, it’s going to take some time to unravel it. And it’s very difficult for us to be able to unravel it all by ourselves. Our best thinking is what gets us stuck in the first place.

An Alternative View

I’ve been trying to understand why I was so stuck so that I can better help my clients get un-stuck, and here’s an alternative view.

  1. There is no one path. There is no one career or profession. Everything you do leads you to know more. Sometimes getting it “wrong” is the best thing that can happen because it makes it so clear what doesn’t work. What if we just accepted that making “wrong” choices is part of the process? Instead of labeling it a mistake or a failure?

  2. We have to stop believing we’ll “figure it out.” There’s no figuring. Staying in my head and thinking some more doesn’t get me closer to an answer. You know what does? Trying something. Then I have data to analyze. As long as I stew in my head, I’m not learning anything new.

  3. Imagine what kind of careers you might choose if the advice were to “follow your interests, and always choose the thing that’s most interesting”?? I chose my college major by default. I had more credits in English than anything else and knew my grades would be better if I took classes with papers and not multiple choice tests. That’s all the information I had to go on. Yet, getting an English degree was one of the smartest non-decisions I ever made because it gave me a foundation for what I do now: Listen, analyze what’s said and what’s not said, understand human motivations, spot themes and patterns, and pull out the relevant thread. I also get to write about whatever the hell I want. It seems like I just got lucky but it wasn’t really luck. While it might have been subconscious, I looked at where I performed well, what came easily to me and what I was interested in: stories not machines; words not numbers.

  4. Ask a different question: WHO do you want to be? Not who are you now and not what do you want to be, but who do you want to BE? What kind of person will you respect? Which next step best supports that?

On July 30, I’m doing a free online workshop, 4 Steps to Find Your Career Purpose Register

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