by Dan King
I remember the first time I heard it, thinking “Jeez, I’m only four. How would I know?” So I answered, “Superman,” and returned to more practical pursuits. “When I grow up” was much too far away to think about now.
By age 35, I realized that I couldn’t avoid the question any longer. After college and four “progressively responsible” but unstimulating jobs, I reasoned that I should have figured it out. Any normal person would.
Imagine my relief at learning that my “mid-life, career-wannabe crisis” was a rather common phenomenon. Thousands of people hadn’t figured it out yet. Phew! Crisis averted!
It used to be that if you didn’t have your career all figured out by the time you were 30, something was very wrong. Now if you think you have it all figured out by the time you’re 30, something is very wrong. It will change.
The choices we make in our 20s and 30s have less permanence today. As such, they place fewer restrictions on our available choices in our 40s and 50s. It’s possible to change careers many times, at any age.
The notion of changing careers can be exhilarating, albeit terrifying. It requires commitment and courage to begin the process of exploring things that, for whatever reasons, we didn’t get to do, or didn’t think about doing, before.
The best career choices are made by pinpointing the intersection of your skills, values and interests. In fact, all career development research points to “interests” as the best indicator of someone’s satisfaction in a job. So the theory goes, if you do work that is interesting to you, you will be satisfied.
No kidding! Why didn’t I think of that?
While this seems like common sense, you probably haven’t based your career decisions on your interests, but rather on the “skills” you possess, and what others are willing to pay for them.
This is where you can trip yourself up. You probably have an uncanny ability to get good at things you don’t enjoy doing. Having a skill and enjoying using it are two different things. So unless you refocus your attention toward more satisfying interests, you’ll continue to grow into areas you don’t want to go.
If you’re concerned that you’ve made some poor career decisions in the past, don’t assume your work has to be a life sentence. You can break free of it. Challenge your assumptions. Start by identifying what’s working and what’s not—and commit to fixing what needs to be fixed.
What do you most want to wake up to each day? Try drawing a picture of the ideal job: the role, the responsibilities, the tasks, the people, the environment. If you know what you want to find, you’ll increase your likelihood of finding it.
What skills do you possess that you actually enjoy using? If you’re like most, you’ve probably gotten very good at doing things you never chose to do in the first place. Ability has very little to do with enjoyment. Discard the skills you don’t enjoy and fill your bag with new, more satisfying ones.
Who are the sorts of people with whom you want to spend your working time? It’s not enough to say you enjoy working with people (you have to), but rather the ways you enjoy working with people: managing them, helping them, teaching them, writing about them or merely going to lunch with them.
What do you want from your job above and beyond a paycheck? Interesting projects? Stimulating colleagues? Flextime? Independence and autonomy? Clarifying your work values will help you evaluate how satisfying a particular job will be.
What regrets will you have if you don’t explore possibilities for achieving a more satisfying career? A happy work life begets a happy personal and family life. Write an essay entitled “If I Were To Die Tomorrow.” Then develop an action plan to create the ending you want to achieve.
The question to ask is not, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” but rather “how do you want to spend the remaining time you have in this life?” Longevity is a gift, one we often don’t acknowledge until it’s almost over. To appreciate it and use it, we need to live our lives like there’s no tomorrow.