What do you want to be when you grow up? 

That’s it. The one question that I am sure I have asked and am sure I was asked as a child growing up. Sure there are some variations of it, what do you want to be or what do you want to do when you grow up, but the underlying message is consistent…what ONE thing do you want to focus on in your professional career?

But first, what is a career anyway?

How would you define a career?

I cheated a little and checked out what dictionary.com had to say. My quick search yielded several meanings, but a few excerpts stuck out including, “an occupation or profession, especially one requiring special training, followed as one’s lifework,” and “a person’s general course of action through life.”

The definitions seemed to fall in line with what I had come to know as a career; something that took years of education and schooling to become an expert in a specific technical area where I would then devote years of my life to earn the right to call it a real career.

The synonyms also caught my eye and included calling, lifework, and livelihood.

Simply put, we’ll be working at our careers for a long time. And based on rough math, humans will spend about 90,000 hours of their life working. That is approximately one-third of our lives! And this is why asking one question seems like a huge missed opportunity for something.

Remember the question…What do you want to be when you grow up?

This one big question is one big missed opportunity for CURIOSITY!

The way I see it, the question squashes curiosity, possibility, and choice, and more importantly the ability to change your mind along the way. By asking this one question, we are taught to narrow down all the options, narrow down what we think we are “good at,” so we can find the one career we should charge toward.

And while some children find and grab tight to their heart and soul’s passions early, for so many more, the answer is not clear, so they respond with the popular responses like a doctor, nurse, lawyer, teacher, veterinarian, professional athlete, or tech wiz. Those known for being well-paying or well-respected careers and then the societal ball starts rolling including college, more college, internships, corporate ladders, all seemingly straight paths to the chosen profession.

But what happens when you start the climb or even reach the summit of your chosen career? You have the credentials following your name, the money in your bank account, and you find that the career you thought you wanted leaves you feeling unsatisfied, unfulfilled, wondering…Is this really my career? Is this really what my lifework is going to be about? Is this what I have staked my livelihood in?

There seems to be a growing and endless cycle of well-meaning people striving for what they thought they “wanted to be” rather than exploring what professional passions they can’t live without. When we put blinders on and believe there is only one path to professional success, frustration, fear, dissatisfaction, anger, resentment, and even boredom become part of how we experience our career.

But, we can flip that switch and decide to focus on how we can feel challenged, exhilarated, satisfied, and ultimately, authentically FULFILLED in our professional pursuits. And the first thing we have to do is stop focusing on one, single and simple-minded question and make CURIOSITY and the PURSUIT OF FULFILLMENT our career, our lifework, and an essential part of our livelihood.

Todd Rose’s book Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment is an enlightening read outlining a refreshing new way to think about personal and professional success where he asserts we have to focus on the individual – what motivates them, what choices and options they have, what strategies work best for them, and a plea to focus on the journey, not the destination – to find ultimate success.

So, before you ask your children, your students, your family, friends, and colleagues, and of course yourself what do you want to be when you grow up? Pause and instead of asking that one question, consider asking the unique individual you are talking with LOTS of questions.

Here are some curiosity generating questions you can try and see if it doesn’t blow the doors open on the opportunities for a fantastic discussion on career opportunities and potential pathways for success!

Career curiosity sparks: 

  • What excites you?
  • What are you curious about?
  • Do you spend time wondering how something works or why something isn’t working?
  • What do you dream about?
  • What makes your blood pump and the hair on your arms stand up?
  • Ignoring money, what would you do every single day because it brings you joy?
  • Where do you see people doing work that intrigues you?
  • What problem do you see in the world that breaks your heart?
  • What legacy would you like to leave behind?

I know I would have benefitted by layering in more curiosity earlier in my life. But I’ve still got a choice. And I choose to continue to ask myself these questions now and layer them into the tools I have as a parent. It’s never too late or too early to get curious about our life’s work! So, wherever you find yourself in your professional journey, I invite you to layer more curiosity into the mix and see what beautiful things await!