What do you want to be when you grow up?

Almost 20 years into my career, I’ve reached a place of clarity on my passions, my strengths, and how I can contribute to the world through my work.


Now that I’ve built deep experience on all sides of the hiring process – from trying to find the right fit for myself, to being that HR person reading resumes, to consulting with organizations to help them find the right people, to coaching individuals who are wanting to switch careers or step into more challenging positions – I know the hardest aspects are really knowing what you want, and then figuring out how to get it.

We might work through lots of personality tests, exercises in books, core competencies of jobs, or stacks of resumes. But in the end, finding the right fit is much more art than science, and usually takes time and stepping out on faith that the decision you make is the right one (for right now, at least).

I know this in my bones – because I’ve been there. I’ve held a number of different jobs with different organizations (and worked for myself), consulted with 50+ organizations, hired for well over 200 positions, interviewed close to 2000 people, and read through many thousands of resumes.

But the path I’ve taken hasn’t ever been straightforward – nor did I have any real sense of direction for a long time.

The answer to that (really annoying) question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was never clear to me.

afterglow backlit beautiful crescent moon
Photo by luizclas on Pexels.com

In high school, I was friends with people who were already great at something – music, poetry, science, math, theater. I was okay at a lot of things, and not great at forcing myself to work really, really hard to get an A in any of them. I felt lost.

The first time I experienced something that lit me up was in the summer before senior year of high school, when I did a program designed to expose us to the issues facing cities, partly through working with local nonprofit organizations. This was when I first connected with my peers who wanted to make a difference, even if we didn’t exactly know how. It was an eye-opening experience to break out of my cushy suburban world and see what was really happening in neighboring Boston, what dynamics were at play, and who was working to help.

This was an important clue, and gave me concrete examples of what meaningful work – for me – could look like.

In college, I majored in history because that was the subject that attracted enough of my interest to focus on it for several years and a 50-page thesis (on Victorian British and Irish history – very practical for job prospects!). But the biggest investment of my time really went into the community I had joined – whether volunteering on Saturday mornings or working in an elementary school in the adjacent neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago; conducting campus tours and helping prospective students to find out if our school was a good fit; being a resident assistant in a dorm; or serving on and then co-leading the student-run crisis hotline.

Another clue: I gravitated much more toward doing rather than academics.

Nearing graduation, I briefly tried to land a lucrative consulting job (until I bombed that interview – and also realized the only part of that work I wanted to do was the pro bono piece), and then tried to get a nonprofit gig, only to strike out by the time I graduated. I went back home for the summer confused about my direction, and locked into a lease that I had to find a way to pay for.

Some people have the benefit of knowing early on what they love to do, and what they are great at. But I think the vast majority of us panicked inside when we got the inevitable question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” – and maybe we responded with a quick answer, or something that made the adult asking smile.

As we get further into our careers, we’re supposed to be grown up – to already be settled on our career path. We have responsibilities. We have expectations to uphold.

But what if, underneath all of that, we’re still wondering, or wishing, what else is out there?

person on a bridge near a lake
Photo by Simon Migaj on Pexels.com

What if we could ask questions that invite possibility of something better, something that would make that younger version of ourselves proud: What makes you light up? What brings you joy? How can you bring your experience into a new realm? How can you do work where your expertise is truly valued?

These are the questions that light me up…because I know how they’ve unlocked the clues that have brought me to the work I get to do every day.

One thought on “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

  1. We have followed parallel paths, intersecting where we both were learning about helping others more effectively. I hate to tell you, as one who is much further down the path, the question never resolves itself. In a few months I will turn 70 and still don’t know what I want to be when i grow up – still exploring options, still learning, still frustrated that I am still buckshot and not a bullet piercing the veil of wisdom and passion. The good news is the exploring is fun! Continue sharing your wisdom, love, joy, and compassion and both you and the world will be better.

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