I’ve had a decade since NU to try to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. Some stops along the way include a master’s degree, some professional certifications, and a few very cool jobs. And here I am, still trying to answer this question.
In the last few years I started a life coaching practice in addition to my other work. Through coaching I’ve met lots of people grappling with similar questions, and I have some ideas about how to get closer to understanding what you want – and how to embrace the journey along the way. Here is some advice from my time as a life coach so far and as someone still exploring my own career options.
Throw yourself in fully. Remember that first internship or job you had? I can guarantee that something you gained from it – a skill, a connection, a perspective – will pop up in your career decades later. That summer catering gig taught you event planning skills; the babysitting job was the start of your teaching career; and your high school retail job led to a corporate gig after college. Dive in to all your professional experiences, even without knowing how they fit into the larger puzzle and even if you change career directions four times. You can get a lot from each job, even without a clear long-term goal.
Set short-term goals. Take the pressure off trying to picture yourself in ten or even twenty years. One perk of setting shorter term goals (“what do I want to be in one or two years?”) is that there’s built-in flexibility. You can feel a sense of accomplishment once you’ve hit the goal, and can then change direction if you want. And you’ll likely have about five decades from college until retirement to keep changing your mind.
Avoid social comparison. It’s easy to look at your acquaintances and think that you’re falling behind. They sold a company, got elected to office, or published a book. Instead of feeling bad about yourself, use their public success as inspiration to achieve your own goals. Jealousy can be a great motivator. And consider the wide variety of things you’ve been able to experience and accomplish already with your not-quite-as-linear career path – what Sheryl Sandberg calls the “career jungle gym” as opposed to the “career ladder”.
Listen to your elders. Once you enter the working world, it’s easier to befriend people of all ages. Recently I’ve gotten to know a few inspiring women in their 50s and 60s: coworkers, friends of friends, classmates, strangers in cafes. They all have a few things in common. They have way more patience than I do, are wise and like to give advice, know that things in life take longer than I think they will, and are all still exploring new and different career paths. They’ve built interesting and meaningful careers, but continue to enjoy asking themselves “what do I want to be when I grow up?” Their perspective reminds me to embrace every experience, accept uncertainty, and have patience – there is no rush.
Keep tabs on your acquaintances. If you’re setting out on an unchartered multi-path career, your acquaintances can be a fantastic resource. They probably represent a range of career paths themselves, and I can almost guarantee there’s someone in your network doing each thing you’ll want to do in your career. You never know when you’ll reach out to an acquaintance for advice: “how did you make the transition from tax lawyer to music blogger?” And, it turns out, people like to help out.
If you’re not finding a simple answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up?” don’t be too hard on yourself and – most importantly – enjoy the journey. You’re in good company.
Jenny Fogarty is a nonprofit management consultant, executive coach and life coach: http://www.jennyfogarty.com. She received her bachelor’s degree in urban studies and history from Northwestern University in 2004, and a master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2008.
About Where The Wildcats Are
University Career Services’ alumni blog series “Where The Wildcats Are” features the career experiences and advice from Northwestern University alumni of all ages and stages. Learn where your fellow Wildcats are post-graduation and how they reached their career goals. Are you a Northwestern alumni interested in sharing your career development process with current students? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and include “Alum blogger” in the subject line.