What Do You Want To Do When You Grow up?

An article by David Cornfield

Thinking about what you want to do when you grow up? Or about what you want to do now that you are grown up and have a job that you hate? Or about what you want to do now that you are about to lose, or have just lost, the job you love?

The choices you make about your career rank with the most significant decisions you will ever make in your lifetime. Your work, as the source of your income, is the major determinant of your lifestyle and future security. But it amounts to a lot more than that. Your choice of work affects the place you go to each day, the relationships that support you through the day, the structures that pattern your day, and how you feel about yourself at the end of the day. It raises core issues of what you want to accomplish in your life, what you are passionate about and what your fears are. So, assuming that you are not one of those people who know from day one that they are going to be a singer or a photographer or whatever, how do you go about making this critical decision?

A lot of people pin their hopes on career testing. I was one of them. I remember being in Grade 13 and breaking out into a cold sweat each time I forced myself to think about this decision I was about to make that was going to affect the rest of my life. Then someone suggested career testing and I breathed a sigh of relief. Career testing was going to lead me quickly and painlessly to a decision that would be just right for me. Someone would analyze a set of test results and tell me, from an objective point of view, what I was best suited to do. End of story.

Except it wasn’t the end of the story. After writing the tests, filling in the questionnaires and drawing up a lot of lists, I went in for my assessment interview only to be told that my results indicated a broad range of interests and aptitudes, which meant that I could do almost anything. Well, whoop de doo. I didn’t need to subject myself to a battery of tests to know that I had a lot of possibilities. That was the problem I came in with - too many possibilities. Career testing was supposed to narrow the possibilities down, and it didn’t do the trick.

Don’t get me wrong. Career tests can be useful tools. They provide a good place to start. They can help you clarify some of the issues. Like, just what transferable skills do you really have? Or, where do you fit into the spectrum of personality types and what kind of work is most suitable for your particular type? However, you should also know that testing is only a place to start, that it has its limitations, and that in some cases it can actually be misleading.

For one thing, testing does not always produce reliable information. Witness the case of one of my clients who came to me convinced that he should be limiting his job search to positions where he could count on close supervision or clearly defined working procedures. Why? Because a supposedly sophisticated test (for which he had paid big bucks) indicated he couldn’t handle unstructured situations. It turned out that this man had been voted most valuable player in his recreational hockey league for three years running. The conclusion was obvious. You can’t be an MVP caliber hockey player if you can’t handle unstructured situations. The test was just plain wrong.

For another thing, people who come for career counselling are often experiencing some degree of depression. When you are depressed you don’t know what you want because you are shut down, and you are shut down because there is something you don’t want to feel. It might be something that is work related, such as how much you hate your job. Or it might be something not related to work at all, such as abuse, or the state of the world. Whatever the cause, shutting down is not something that can be done selectively. Shutting down to what you don’t want to feel, like unpleasant memories or difficult emotions, also shuts you down to what you do want to feel, like your interests, passions and desires. And if you can’t feel your interests, passions and desires, no amount of testing is going to reveal them.

Traditional test-oriented career counsellors are not usually trained or mandated to deal with depression. If you exhibit any of the classic symptoms of depression such as chronic boredom, lack of interest or enthusiasm, low energy, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, you should be looking for a counsellor who knows something about working with depression who can help you deal with whatever it is that you are running from. It is only when you allow yourself to feel that you will know what you want from life. And once you allow yourself to feel and know what you want from life, you are less likely to need a test to reveal what your interests, passions and desires are. You will be able to feel them and know them as you live your life from moment to moment.

To this point we have been focussing on how to find out more about who you are and what you want. It is not enough, however, to look inward. You also have to look outward. Work is the place where you make a contribution to your community. When you ask yourself what you want to do for a living, you are in effect asking ‘what do I want to do in my community that somebody will value enough to pay me for it?’ To put yourself in a position to identify where you can make a contribution, you have to know what is happening in the workplace.

There was a time when the workplace was relatively stable, stable enough to allow for permanent jobs and defined job descriptions. Finding out what was happening in the workplace was a relatively simple job. Nowadays, everything is in flux. The scene changes from day to day. To stay current, you have to tap in on a regular basis. It might look like reading newspapers and magazines, or watching documentary television, or surfing the Internet, but it might also look like talking to your neighbours, or listening for what people complain about in bars, or noticing what people are getting rid of at garage sales. And don’t forget that there are people who call themselves demographers and futurists and market researchers and statisticians who make it their business to suss out trends in our society. Let them do some of the work for you. Read their books and get a leg up. But keep in mind that by the time one of these books is published, it is already out of date. You have to keep your personal lines of communication open - observing, listening, letting yourself be impacted and having a response.

Stay current, but don’t overdo it. There is too much going on for any one person to be in touch with it all. To some extent you have to trust that if you are open to receiving it, fate will bring you the information you require. And don’t get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the need. It is not your job to solve every problem that presents itself. Trying to do so would merely dissipate your energy. Your job is to identify the places where you feel called upon to make your contribution and then take action to turn your vision into a reality.

So, let us suppose you are at the point where you have a pretty good idea who you are and what you want, and you also have a feel for what is happening in the workplace. How do you bring these two halves of the equation together? The answer to this question, in the words of Joseph Campbell, is to follow your bliss. Knowing what is going on in the world around you, let your passions, interests and desires guide you to what you are supposed to be doing. Trust that your attention goes to what you need to be paying attention to. Know that attention is a reliable way of setting priorities. In this moment your attention is on reading these words. If a truck were to smash through your front window a moment from now, your attention would go instantaneously to getting out of harms way. And it only makes sense. Human beings wouldn’t survive if our attention was not called to what we need to be paying attention to.

Follow your bliss? Be directed by whatever draws your attention, by whatever raises your energy and passion. Be instructed by the images in your dreams and fantasies. Notice what you are fascinated by, what you like to talk about, what you are curious to know more about. Notice what bugs you, what makes you ask yourself "Why hasn’t anybody done something about that?" Try asking yourself instead, "What would it take for me to do something about that?"

Remember you have to keep working both sides of the equation, moving back and forth between opening yourself to taking in information about the world, and letting a portion of that information grab your attention. At every step of the way, you have to be asking yourself ‘What is really going on here? Will the need for what I do now be affected? Is there something that needs to be done that isn’t being attended to? Is there some way that I can be of service? What is the world asking of me?"

You may feel passionately about the need for something to be done but not feel qualified to do anything about it. Keep in mind that in the present climate of accelerating change, much of what needs to be done has never been done before. There may be no one qualified to do the job and no way to train for it because it is so new. Or the ones who are qualified to do the job may have other fish to fry. Assume that it is no accident that this problem is within your attention. It may be that you are in a unique position to know what is going on. It may be that nothing will happen without your passion, initiative and managerial skills. Or there may be some way for you to participate in someone else’s endeavour. So don’t give up too quickly. Explore what it would take to put yourself in a position to do something about it, or be associated with the people who are doing something about it.

You may be afraid about money. Remember that it is commitment to a powerful vision that draws the energy, resources and opportunities needed to turn a vision to reality. In the words of Goethe:

Concerning all acts of initiative and creation there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

Marsha Sinetar sums this philosophy up well in the title of her book - Do What You Love: The Money Will Follow.

There is a lot more opportunity to do what you love in the new workplace. Twenty years ago, the workplace was structured almost exclusively around permanent jobs. This is no longer true. Millions of permanent workers around the world have been fired and replaced by contract workers as part of a major organizational restructuring. These jobs have disappeared. The downside of this change has been obvious. Those who lost their jobs, or the prospect of a job, were thrown into crisis. They felt hurt and angry and afraid. Some weathered the change well, some didn’t. For these people, it has been a difficult time. However there is also an upside. The upside is that permanent jobs are not especially conducive to following your interests, passions and desires. Permanent positions require you to do what you are told to do within the parameters of your job description, long after you are no longer interested or passionate about what you are being asked to do. With the disappearance of permanent jobs, fewer people are stuck having to brace themselves to get through the day doing work they don’t care about, and more people are doing work they are excited about.

I hasten to add that there are many people who love their jobs and wouldn’t part with them for the world. We had a man came to our house the other day to clean our carpets, and it was obvious that cleaning carpets was his passion. He had been doing the same thing for the same employer for 23 years and he still took great pride in restoring an old rug to its original beauty. But for every employee who is happy in their permanent job, there are many more who are afraid to feel their feelings because what they would feel would be how unhappy they are in their work. For some of these people being fired has been the kick in the pants they needed to get out of a rut and re-invent their working life.

Stepping back for an overview, we see that the search for career is an essential component of the spiritual quest for meaning and purpose. While we sometimes settle for less, our souls cry out for work we can feel passionate about, work that will be satisfying and fulfilling, work that feels meaningful. The idea of meaningful work suggests some larger context that holds what we do and gives it meaning, just as the body gives meaning and purpose to the lives of the cells that exist within it. Like the cell in your body, you are called to some work that you are meant to be doing. There is a contribution you are meant to be making with the gifts entrusted to your care, and you come to know what that contribution is by opening your heart to what the world is asking of you. Align the call of your soul with the call of the world and you will find your life and work imbued with hope, energy, enthusiasm, satisfaction, and meaning.

David Cornfield

What Do You Want To Do When You Grow Up? was first published in Eye for the Future magazine, December 1998/January, 1999

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