I Don't Know What I Want To Be When I Grow Up

I have only known a handful of people who had a clear calling from a young age. Most of us discover our career path in a different way. One client couldn’t stand her commute anymore. Another wanted more financial stability after years of contract employment. A third had been passed over for multiple promotions with no clear feedback about how she could improve. Each woman had reached their limit. I heard anger in their voices. I recognized the energized commitment in their bodies. A change was coming and they wanted help navigating it.

Other clients have come to me in an earlier stage of the “what’s next” inquiry. They recognize it as fantasizing about leaving their role or calling in sick to work. This can be an incredibly uncomfortable place to be. People often get stuck here because they believe they have to choose an ideal role before taking any steps forward. After being asked as children “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and by their managers “where do you see yourself in five years?”, they feel paralyzed. If career development is a linear journey along a straight path, their next step could be the WRONG one! When they don’t know what they want next, inaction feels like the safest choice. There is an important difference between staying still to listen to your own guidance and ignoring the question that is stirring inside. Sometimes when people choose to wait they are actually just avoiding the discomfort of uncertainty.

During my career in biotech, I had numerous development conversations that went like this: 

“Where do you want to be in 5 years?”  

“Honestly, I don’t know.”  

“Whose position do you want?  Pick a leader whose job you would like to do.”  

“None of those appeal to me.”  

The development planning strategy of “pick an end goal and I will build a path for you” has never worked for me and I know a lot of people who are looking for alternatives too.  Here are three strategies I use with clients who are ready to explore their big "what's next?" question:

Run Experiments

I transitioned between seven jobs in 14 years, always searching for the next fulfilling step. Some experiments helped me find my “yes”; others helped me find my “no”. I took on a rotational project in a new department with a mission that excited me, only to discover that the day-to-day realities of the role were a poor fit. I also facilitated mindfulness groups at work. This gave me experience teaching mind-body practices in a corporate environment and helped me discover my calling as an executive coach focusing on inner-awareness.

I conducted several other experiments throughout my career.  A rotational project in another department helped me understand I didn’t like the day-to-day realities of that role.  I transitioned between seven roles in 14 years and that rotation helped me avoid a career path that was a poor fit. Becoming a mindfulness facilitator gave me experience teaching mind-body practices in a corporate environment and helped me discover my calling as an executive coach focusing on inner-awareness.

What experiment do you want to create? How can you initiate a mentorship, project or on-the-job shadowing opportunity that can expose you to roles you have been curious about? These roles don’t need to be in your industry. I recently read about a couple who left their corporate roles to become farriers (the people who shoe and care for horse’s hooves). Before they made the leap, they did the work on the weekends to confirm that they would enjoy it.

Know Yourself

When working with a new client, I use different assessments and guided practices to help them identify their unique strengths and what inspires them.  Sometimes, it can be shocking when people discover that their personal purpose and gifts don't match what others have reflected to them through feedback.

Each personality type has a different filter that comes with inherent strengths and challenging misunderstandings. Working with the Enneagram creates a transformative path to wholeness and professional growth through which we utilize the strengths of all nine types that are already within us. 

After years of emulating the management styles that are popular around them, many of my clients are surprised to see themselves through this new framework. Appreciating their authentic leadership style supports deeper self-acceptance and clarity about whether they want to stay with their current team.

What do you know about yourself? What do you do well that you enjoy? How would you like to grow? Were there similar qualities in your most fulfilling positions? 

Define Your Values and Priorities

When I support my clients to identify which roles are a good fit for them and which trade-offs they are willing to make, the first step is to understand their values and priorities. This is where I often hear people judge themselves.  “I know I shouldn’t worry about this but I want to have a lot of financial stability.” ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
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Giving yourself permission to want what you want can be a huge first step.  A guided journey that I love to lead people through is the Desire Map process.⠀Have you ever planned an exciting vacation or developed toward a new job only to feel dissatisfied once you got there?  The Desire Map is a revolutionary goal-setting practice that focuses on how you want to feel while working towards a goal rather than the end state.  Identifying your Core Desired Feelings is an empowering way to focus your energy on what you want more of and to say no to the commitments and relationships that lead you away from those priorities.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

Because we are all so unique, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to career planning.  It helps to have a guide who can offer different tools as you search for your fulfilling answer. 

I have good news.  You don't need to know what you want to be when you grow up.  You don't even need to know what the next step is.  Asking the question is powerful.  Being willing to learn about yourself and discover what you don't like is also empowering.  The most liberating shifts I have seen occurred as clients started to know and accept themselves.  During moments of freedom from their self-judgment, the next step on their path revealed itself.