What do you want to be when you grow up?

A Ballerina! A Firefighter! An Astronaut!

These are typical responses kids give when the question is asked of them. Most responses are animated with shining eyes and boundless optimism. Do you even remember what you said?

Perhaps your response hasn’t changed. Perhaps it has. Most likely, it has changed a lot of times. I know that it has for me.

If you have known your passion from a young age, you don’t understand what the rest of us feel like. Consider yourself lucky. Passion trumps all. I wish you the best pursing it, but this article isn’t for you.

This article is for those of us who are a little uneasy with the word passion. It is a strong word. When I hear it outside the context of sex I am immediately skeptical that someone is trying to sell me something. I am not one for exaggerated claims. I am a straight-shooter who doesn’t care for BS.

That being said, I am all for self-empowerment and making the most of your life. I want you to reach your highest potential and be happy doing, just as I want that for myself. But I am practical and grounded, and so is my approach.

If you are ready for the straight talk, let’s talk about growing up.


The lie: When you grow up

You will never grow up. That is not an insult criticizing your maturity. It is actually the opposite of that. If you are smart, you will never grow up.

That is because growing up is not a final destination or plateau. The very word grow means to develop or progress. I have known people in every decade of their life that didn’t know what they want to do when they grow up. You don’t obtain it at a certain age or upon achieving a particular milestone like graduation, buying a house, or having a child. It is a process that never ends. Maybe you want to look at it as growing up many times throughout your life, like stairs continuing on upwards.

We are constantly evolving. We have new experiences and learn new things. All of this informs and changes who we are. If it doesn’t, then I am sorry and you truly have grown up. You have reached a plateau. You are no longer living and growing, you are dying.

I hope I never grow up. In fact, I would suggest you never ask a child “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Ask them what they like and what interests them. Support them and their ideas enthusiastically so they can remember when they are older.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics claims the average American will have approximately 11 jobs in their lifetime. This information is based on Baby Boomers. The younger generations are expected to have more.

I didn’t believe it when I was in school for my undergraduate degree, but now I do. It seems absurd to imagine so many major shifts in your life. Especially, when you are investing in your education for a particular job or field. For those like me who are planners and love security, that thought can be scary.

If you have your whole life planned out, be prepared to change that plan. Don’t get me wrong, plans are great as a guide. It doesn’t mean you failed if things don’t go according to your plan. So, fasten your seatbelts now because life will change and so will you.

Perhaps a few years back you landed your dream job. Now you are finding that it isn’t fulfilling anymore. Why? You or your circumstances have changed. That is not only okay, it is good. You want to grow. It means it is time to once again assess yourself and what you want. What can make you more fulfilled? If you determine that is a different job, I have a few suggestions on where to start.

(See related: How to be more happy with life using flow)

Before I move on, you need to decide if you are willing to do the work. Because if you aren’t, just stop right here. There is no point in going on if you aren’t willing to put the work in. You can conserve your energy for complaining about your life. Is that too tough for you? Sorry, but that is reality. If you are onboard, then let’s go.

Take a look at the chart below. There are many versions of this type of chart, but I like this one the best. It isn’t perfect and I will discuss that later.

Interests, skill, market venn diagram

Ideal job diagram. Credit: Colorado State University

The point of the diagram is that you will find the ideal job for you at the intersection of your skills, interests, and the job market. I will break down each circle and what it represents.



Other diagrams may label this circle Passion. You already know how I feel about that word. I think the word Interests is more appropriate. It can include: interests, important things, things you find exciting, things you think are fun, things that intrigue you, things you are drawn to. You get the idea.

Some people have a hard time with this. They draw a blank when faced with such an open-ended question. Calm down. Here are 6 ways to help you figure out your interests. I am sure you have heard of several of them before.

  1. What did you enjoy as a kid? When you had no limitations on your dreams what did you like? This was before all the rules and responsibilities of the world were guiding your decisions. Don’t apply those rules now at this point, just think.
  2. What do you like to do with your kids or visitors from out-of-town? I know that I didn’t even realize how much I liked museums until I wanted to share it with my kids. I was more excited than they were. If this happens to you, that means you either care about it or think it is important.
  3. What do you like to do on vacation? I gravitate towards museums and after that, the pool and a book. What do you get excited to do when you are not constrained to your normal environment or time schedule. What about weekends? What do you do?
  4. Write your own eulogy. I know this sounds morbid, but it really works. This doesn’t only work for career guidance, but how you live your life as a whole. How do you want to be remembered? What did you accomplish? Were you loving and giving? An important inventor? Someone who broke the mold? A leader in your field? The things you want your loved ones to think about you are important to you. You can only be remembered for things if you make them happen in your real life. That means now because this isn’t dress rehearsal.
  5. What is deeply meaningful to you? Do you have a cause that is central to your life? Religion, the environment, public health issues may have special significance to you. They don’t even need to be on such a grand scale, perhaps literacy in your small corner of the world. If you feel strongly about it, use that strength of conviction to guide you.
  6. Take a personality/career quiz. There are a ton of interest inventories and personality quizzes that can help you put a label on something you can’t articulate. There is a link to some possibilities in the Resources section.

Interest is the most important factor when finding fulfilling work. That is why I said passion trumps all earlier. This is because it will help drive the skills. It can even possibly alter the market. There is a great video over at TED you can watch called The Power of Passion by Richard St. John.



This circle represents Skills, Talents, or What you are good at. I would prefer to label this circle Abilities. This is because it really refers to what you are willing and able to do.

Yes, we all have certain capabilities. However, I believe that in most cases you can acquire whatever skills are needed to do what you want to do. Be it through hard work, education, or persistence, or a combination of all three. If you really want something, you will do whatever it takes. There is a kick butt video over at TED you can watch called How to stop screwing yourself over by Mel Robbins. She is a tough-love, no excuses kind of woman, I love it.

So if you able to acquire whatever skills are needed, it really comes down to what are you willing to do. What are you willing to do? I call this desires and deal-breakers. If there is desire, there is will. If there is a will, there is a way. If there is a deal-breaker you won’t do the work, period.

Now comes the time to be completely honest with yourself. No one is watching. It isn’t a time to be politically correct or try to make yourself look good. This is you and your life. What are your desires and deal-breakers as it relates to:

  1. Location/Commute. Location, location, location. There is a reason the real estate industry has this mantra. It is important, maybe less so now than it was in the past, but it is still important. Are you willing to move? How long are you willing to commute? How often are you willing to travel?
  2. Hours. Not only how many, but where they are spent. Are you okay working evenings and weekends? For how long? Indefinitely is a long time. Short term investment can often lead to long term opportunities. Where do you draw the line?
  3. Money. We all need money to live. How much is enough? Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy security and peace of mind. Be honest with yourself as to what you really need. The money is where people can’t or won’t do the work.
  4. Benefits. If your job doesn’t provide the benefits you need, you will have to pay out-of-pocket. Obviously, this is closely tied to money.
  5. Education. Do you need a certain degree or certificate? Can you gain experience that is equivalent to formal education? Are you able to do what it takes to get the credentials needed?
  6. Team work/Individual work. How do you like to work? Most positions require working with others at times, but what about all the time? Do you prefer to work independently?
  7. Security. There is no such thing as a completely secure job so this is on a spectrum. Certain jobs are notoriously unstable. How stable is the field or industry? Can you handle that?
  8. Family. Do you need to balance what you do with family and other obligations? Do you need to coordinate with family in regard to time, money, benefits, etc.?
  9. Culture. Not your culture, the company culture. What kind of environment do you want to work in? Close-knit family, formal, or policy driven, what kind of conditions can you flourish under?
  10. Values. Do you have specific beliefs or customs that influence what you can or are willing do?
  11. Personal Characteristics. What personal traits do you have that will enable/hinder your ability to do a job? You need to be comfortable to be happy and productive.

Considering all these desires and deal-breakers, which desires are most important to you? Realize that there is no perfect job. All jobs have pros and cons. You are looking for something that you are happy with a majority of the time.


Job Market

This circle represents the Market or if people are willing to pay you for it. In some ways, this is also related to the stability of the field or industry. Perhaps there is a market, but it is slowly shrinking. On the other hand, you could be starting at the ground level of a new field and ride it to the top.

Markets change along with everything else. Society is constantly evolving. Old jobs are changing and disappearing. New jobs are being created. One needs to be nimble to prosper.

If there is not a current market, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a demand for something. It depends on how innovative you are. You may need to make people aware that they want or need you and your new concept. This will take more effort and an entrepreneurial spirit, but if you have what it takes it could be extremely rewarding.

If the market is crowded or limited, you will need to work extra hard to realize an ideal position. You will need to use all the resources you have access to: networking, conventions, recruiters, employment services, and everything else. Are you willing and able to do that? No one said it was going to be easy.


The intersection

There. You did a lot of the leg work. Are you ready to figure out what you want to do when you grow up this time?

Now you need to be creative. Think outside of the box. Start by considering where your Interests and Skills intersect. Do you see some potential ideas? Is there a market for any of those ideas? Can you tweak your Interests and Skills to meet the Market?

If you need a little boost to get your juices flowing. Here are 2 infographics to help you out.

(See related: How to find out if you’re an introvert?)

Keep working on different possibilities. If one stands out that really makes you excited, then it is time to make it happen. Go for it. If there aren’t any that really stand out, then be open-minded to related opportunities. Keep plugging away until you find something that gets you excited.


Not grown up but a work-in-progress

Butterflies coming out of cocoons

Enough of the tough love and now time for encouragement.

Don’t feel defeated because you are struggling with what you want to do. You are experiencing growing pains. Pains that are letting you know that it is time for a change.

You don’t know what the future looks like because you have never been there. That is scary, but it can be exciting and amazing. Look forward to the future and be happy that you are evolving. Remember, it may not be long before you grow up again and need another change. Enjoy the ride.

Have you gone through a growing up process? What factors played the biggest role in your decision? Do you have any other tips for those who are struggling with what they want to do when they grow up?

Let me know in the poll and comments!




The 11 Best Career Quizzes to Help You Find Your Dream Job at The Muse

A Step-By-Step Plan To Change Your Career To Something You Love at Forbes

FAQs at Bureau of Labor Statistics

How To Find Your Dream Job at Forbes

How to stop screwing yourself over by Mel Robbins at TEDxSF

The Best Careers For Your Personality Type at Business Insider

The Power of Passion by Richard St. John at TED-Ed

This Flowchart Helps You Find Your Career Personality Type at Lifehacker