I Still Don’t Know What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

Imagine you’re back in first grade. Your teacher asks you to draw what you want to be when you grow up, and you gleefully sketch a jaggy, misshapen doctor or astronaut or princess or Autobot. You get a gold star and loads of encouragement, and no one cares when your career path pivots to Jedi within the next week.

dont know what i want to be when i grow up

But as you grew older, this exercise went from one of jubilant imagination to one haunted by anxiety and stress. You meandered through school without a clear goal, enjoying the classes but never finding your singular passion. While everyone around you became writers, police officers, and business executives, you merely had a series of jobs and a couple of hobbies.

Now you’re in your 20s, 30s, or 40s, and you wonder why you still don’t know what you want to be when you grow up. Is something wrong with you?

Anatomy of A Bad Question

Not at all. Despite its pervasiveness, this simply isn’t useful once Jedi is no longer a sensible career choice. The question itself is underpinned by false premises.

One of these false premises stems from the assumption that there is one answer—a single dream job leading you to happiness. Answer correctly or live with fulfillment always beyond reach. This assumption may pan out if you’re the protagonist in an adventure movie, but it isn’t effective when confronting the vagaries of real life.

Second, the question conflates one’s career with one’s being. True, our careers are an important part of who we are, but they’re only a part. We are also friends, hobbyists, travelers, and members of families, social networks, and religious organizations. No one says they want to be a good friend when they grow up, yet friendships remain essential to our grown-up lives.

When we don’t include these kinds of variables, we limit how we view our future fulfillment by limiting how we view ourselves.

Revising the Question

Don’t ask what you want to be when you grow up; ask what you want to do when you grow up. Put another way: What kind of lifestyle do you want?

To find an answer, sketch out your version of a fulfilling life. Does it involve travel? Making lots of money? Having leisure time for friends and family? Being your own boss? Wielding the power to help society or the clout to influence culture? Once you have a lifestyle goal sketched out, you can choose one of the many careers that will help you achieve it.

This revised question shifts your mind away from the “one path to one goal” mindset to one where many potential paths can lead toward a more general—yet ideal—lifestyle.

Let Your Passions Follow You

You’ll still want a career, but switching to a lifestyle-focused mindset will alleviate the pressure to find the perfect one. In turn, as Wash Post Life points out, this will mean following your curiosity, not your passions

Following your passions, like asking what you want to be when you grow up, prompts you to view career and life satisfaction as inextricable. And what if yesterday’s intense passion should fizzle out tomorrow? Are you now doomed to live a life of unfulfilling mediocrity?

Instead of pursuing your passions, Wash Post Life recommends using curiosity to find careers that propel you to develop skills. As your skills, successes, and confidence grow, your passions will follow. Passions may fade in time, but your skills will be more durable, and you can use them to pivot toward a new career that piques your curiosity.

To get started, list careers or fields you’re curious about, then ask if any of them intrigue you enough to devote the time and energy to develop the requisite skills. Next ask yourself, “Will any career on the short list meet my lifestyle goals?” Stockbrokers, for example, will enjoy six-figure incomes, but if your lifestyle goals call for low stress and a flexible schedule, then this career isn’t for you.

If you find a career that interests you enough to develop the necessary skills and matches your preferred lifestyle, give it a go. You can always switch it up later.

Multiple Choice Test

But things change. The career that interested you may one day lose its luster, and the lifestyle you thought important a decade ago might seem frivolous now. What are you to do? Pivot into a new career.

Emilie Wapnick calls people who pursue multiple careers “multipotentialites.” She notes that it’s rarely a waste of time to pursue something you’re drawn to, and an underappreciated value of multiple careers is the ability to transfer skills from one to the next. It may be cheating, but we think Wapnick has the best answer for those who still don’t know what they want to be when they grow up.

So, take up the title of multipotentialite. With it, you can create a lifestyle goal and pursue it along many different paths. If one career path doesn’t pan out or a previously unforeseen one becomes promising, you can simply switch. Since you will be moving toward a lifestyle and not a single career, you will always be moving toward your goal. Sure, multipotentialite may be more difficult to draw than Jedi, but it can prove just as fulfilling.

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