It’s Not What You Want to Be When You Grow Up — It’s Who

by Jeff Hittner

Every aunt, uncle, grandparent, third cousin and teacher’s favorite question:

What do you want to be when you grow up?

For the 95 percent of us that had no idea when we were 16 — let alone today — we prefer a trip to the dentist to answering the question. (A career that few dreamed of when they were 16, by the way). For that small group lucky enough to have a longstanding vision of their life’s work, that is fantastic. You’ve got a different path to walk in life, which offers a different perspective of the future. But for the rest, the searching will form part of our identity, help us define incredible and diverse experiences and perhaps lead to an answer along the way.

It didn’t hurt that Leuven’s main square had 37 bars in it…

When I was 23, I was living the late 90’s Internet dream. Startups and their jobs grew on trees. I was inventing new eCommerce products by day, partying by night. But I was nagged by a sense of insecurity around my identity. How could I have any strong opinions about the world around me without having really seen it? Two years removed from college, I called my university’s study abroad office and proclaimed “I’ve already graduated, but I want to study abroad.” To my surprise, this wasn’t as unusual of a call as I would have guessed. I was pointed in an intriguing direction…Belgium. I soon found myself immersed in a unique 700 year old university culture, paying a mere 500 euro to receive my masters in Cultures and Development Studies from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.

After finishing my studies, however, I found myself stuck in a recurring question I was sure I answered the year before: what do I want to do with my life? I was confused. Didn’t I just answer this question by going to graduate school? And before that when I finished college? I moved to Granada, Spain, to learn Spanish and teach English for a year. Another amazing experience full of life lessons. But afterwards, the same question returned. What should I be doing with my life? That’s when I (finally) started to recognize the pattern. If I always asked myself the question assuming I had to make a life altering career choice that very day, I would always be stumped, scared and frustrated. And when I looked at the decisions I had made over the last several years — Internet employee, graduate student, Spanish vagabond — I realized I had been answering the question a different way — without even knowing it. I was always making the choice of who I wanted to be in the world, the personal character I wanted to develop, rather then what choice would be best for a fast and direct career trajectory.

With that lesson in toe, I’ve let my personal development lead my career decisions ever since. And I’ve transitioned careers several times as a result.

I’ve been a strategy consultant at IBM. I’ve founded several social ventures, including Ethikus, the first community of ethical consumers and small businesses in NYC that shared the same values. I’ve been a leadership professor in an MBA in Sustainability program at Bard College I helped to launch. Most recently, I was the ethics teacher to 195 eight, nine and ten year olds and advisor to global organization focused on entrepreneurship and youth development. Of course, finding these opportunities has been harder and messier than my description implies. There have been gaps between roles. Long moments of fear and uncertainty. Whispers in my head about stability vs. fulfillment.

So I can’t imagine having completed these fulfilling jobs if I asked myself, “Is this the right career move for me?” And I don’t think looking forward I could distill the pattern of my choices, at least, until recently. After 17 years of work experience, I do finally see some career themes like entrepreneurship, social impact and education repeating themselves in the projects I pursue. But even a few years ago, a clear definition of my life’s work was not apparent.

Related: 3 Helpful Ideas for 21st Century Job Search

A few years back, when I began collaborating with Education First, the world’s largest provider of international education programs, we took this concept of discovery a bit further. We brought nearly 500 high school students from the US to London for a grand experiment. We called it The Adventure of Finding Your Career.

The idea was straightforward. Give the students a chance to define for themselves the word ‘career.’ Try asking a high school student that question today. You’d be surprised by their hesitation. Their answer — in all likelihood — would be a regurgitated definition from a family member, or if original, something they think we all want to hear. That’s how every session started off. Then we peeled back the onion. We introduced students to dozens of young adults — folks that had made numerous lateral jumps — from work to travel; from corporate life to volunteering; from entrepreneurship to non-profit work. We broke the students into small groups. We asked them to forget their parents and teachers ideas about career and future, asked them to think about it for themselves. In no time, each student was imagining their dreams, the dozens of experiences and accomplishments they wanted before they turned 30. We freed them of the baby boomer definition of career. And finally, we asked them to define that word for themselves. You can see the results below.

Now as a milestone birthday of my own approaches, I am returning to the question I have meditated on every couple of years. Who do I want to be when I grow up? (It just never seems like a bad question to ask!) This time, I’ve found my answer in aligning my journey with hundreds of others trying to explore their own futures. I will be launching Project X in NYC and Boston.

My immediate goal will be to help others stuck at a proverbial fork in the road, still asking themselves, “is this the right career opportunity for me?” As I’ve tried to do my whole life, I’ll work with them to reframe the question: Does this connect to who I want to be in the world and how I want to grow in my life? They may find, as I have, that decisions become a lot easier when you do.

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