“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
While few of us can remember the first time someone asked us this, I’m confident we’ve all been asked this question many times before. Maybe it was a teacher in elementary school, your parents or a family friend in high school, or maybe even a guidance counselor or admissions officer before you started college. Either way, as a college student, this is likely the question you are now asked most often. While some people have always known the answer, most of us are still trying to figure it out each day.
What we don’t often consider is how asking this question requires you to name a specific title in a specific career and discipline. As you can imagine, this confines your available paths, not to mention it’s undoubtedly difficult. You can’t tell someone you want to be a doctor and a painter because they’ll quickly tell you that you can’t do both. While that’s a different story for another time, it does raise an important flaw with the way we think about careers. What if you really enjoy both the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and helping people who are sick? What if you are just as excited about teaching a difficult concept to a friend as you are to launching a new business idea? The limits we confront when thinking about a good answer to the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question are the exact reasons why we shouldn’t be asking the question at all.
At Next Wave, we believe a more appropriate question is, “What are you passionate about?” Thinking about your interests and passions is the first step in career exploration. We’re not as interested in what you want to be, but rather why you’re interested in being a doctor or a lawyer. Too often, students are just focused on the title and not the reason why they’re interested in that title. Is it about the money? Prestige? Or are you genuinely interested in improving the world around you? No matter the reasons, it’s more important to think about why you’re interested in what you want to be less than specifically what you want to be.
Career exploration begins with identifying your passion(s). To do this, we believe in three important first steps:
1. Identify where you spend your time and decide if that aligns with your interests. While we all could spend hours enjoying our favorite reality TV show or flipping through Instagram, is that really what you’re most passionate about? Investigating how you spend your free time each day is a critical step in assessing your interests. What are the things that you get most excited about when you wake up each day? What are your hobbies? What do you feel yourself getting passionate about when you’re talking to a friend, classmate, professor, etc.? Our true passions aren’t always clear to us, but where you spend your time is. If you don’t know what you’re excited about, audit your time and use that to understand your interests.
2. Test your interests early and often. So you’ve figured out that you’d rather blog about the latest fashion trends then write your English paper. Or, maybe you binge watch YouTube tutorials instead of reading for your Wednesday History class. Either way, we encourage you to test your interests early and often. Start a website, host a meetup, join a student club or get an on campus job within an area about which you want to learn more. Do anything in your power to explore your interest whether paid or unpaid. The only way to find out if you truly love something is if you’d do it for free.
3. Don’t be afraid to fail and/or change your mind. So you took an Economics class and realized that supply and demand aren’t as exciting as you thought. Your campus work study job in the communications office turned out to be less social media and more faxes and copies. After you’ve given it a shot, take a moment to assess how you felt. No matter the outcome, it’s okay to change your mind. Realizing that this interest isn’t what you want to do professionally is just as valuable as finding something you love. If things go wrong, cross if off your list, but don’t be afraid to keep trying. Realizing you’re still excited about something but don’t want to make a living doing it, is okay. Not all of our passions are lucrative or things we should pursue professionally. Either way, keep exploring.
Choosing the right career isn’t about a destination. Unlike just picking a title or an industry, career exploration is a journey that never ends for some people. You should accept that you might not be the person who has always known what they wanted to be. Instead, you should focus on being the person who always does the thing they love. The choices you make today aren’t always permanent, but do impact the choices you’ll be able to make tomorrow. So stop focusing on what you want to be when you grow up, and start focusing on what you enjoy doing.