When I grow up

It wasn’t until three or four years ago that I figured out what I wanted to be when I grow up. Not what specific job, not each twist and turn of my career. The characteristics of a job that is right for me: my strengths, where I shine, where and how I can deliver value to an organization.

While I’d feigned clarity and direction in countless prior job interviews and graduate school applications, I felt like I didn’t know in any real way where I was headed. I knew I’d been good at school, and since graduating college I’d managed to figure out a lot of things I didn’t like. But I still had a pretty limited affirmative understanding of what I was put on this earth to do.

No doubt our educational institutions are a huge part of the problem. Even in graduate schools, which are meant to prepare students for the next stage in their careers and to help them get there, I spent 99% of my time “learning stuff” and 1% of my time trying to figure out who I was and what made me tick. That can’t possibly be the right balance, yet that’s how nearly all of these programs are structured. (Sure, part of this is on me. I made the mistake of thinking Business School was school when it didn’t need to be.)

I can’t overstate how many incredible people I meet who have no idea what they’re supposed to do with their lives.

So, first and foremost: it’s OK that you don’t know. It takes time.

Second, this notion of figuring out exactly what you want to be when you grow up is an anachronism. It’s time to dispense with the preschoolers’ notion of careers (doctor, lawyer, footballer, firefighter) which is pretty much the only mental model we all have. Instead, the work begins with exploring questions like: what am I best at? What things seem really easy for me that are difficult for others? When do I shine? What kinds of problems do I like solving? How much uncertainty makes me comfortable/uncomfortable? How much recognition do I need? From whom? Why? How much do I like risk? Am I more conceptual or concrete? Do I love ideas or execution? How am I at building relationships? Am I creative? Do I like to teach others?

I think we knew all this stuff once, and we forgot it.

A short story: weekends in my house are a juggling act bouncing between three kids. Yet last weekend I managed to get a few uninterrupted hours with my 8-year-old son, and I’d told him we could do anything he wanted. While all the kids in his class would likely use that time to play soccer or baseball (and yes if I’d let him we’d have played video games), his idea of a perfect afternoon was to go to a craft store, buy a box of popsicle sticks, a package of pipe-cleaners, a piece of green foam, a piece of Styrofoam, some Elmer’s gel glue, and, as a bonus, a packet of fake moss, and then spend a few house building a model playground from scratch in our basement. Voila:

I have no idea what my son is going to be when he grows up, and I don’t suspect that he’ll know that for a while. But I know that he gets joy out of creating things and out of using his imagination. It engages him fully. In some way and in some form, he’s going to have to make stuff if he’s going to be really happy.

That’s the only level at which I’ve been able to figure out what I’m meant to do in the world. It’s not a shingle I can hang on the door or a defined career in any traditional sense of the word. What it is is a first-time understanding of who I am, of what the organizations I’m part of seem to need from me, of roles I continually find myself playing whether I choose to or not.

Slowly, the outline started to form, and once I saw that initial outline, my job was to keep trying to get the picture into sharper focus. Still lots of work to do – a lifetime of work – but it feels a lot easier than groping around pretending that I’m supposed to fit myself and my career into some little box I first heard about when I was a little kid.

There are fewer and fewer boxes out there, and you probably don’t want to fit into any of them anyhow.