As kids, we are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We like puppies, so we say veterinarian. We’re romanced by the white coat and stethoscope, so we say doctor. One of my nephews, shortly after the 2012 presidential election, told a relative that he’d like to be Mitt Romney when he grew up. While I disagreed with his politics, I had to admire his identification with the less successful of the candidates. Clearly, Charlie was going to be a champion of the underdog.
And this is the thing. It’s not about Mitt Romney; it’s about what he represents in the enigmatic and luminous terrain of a five-year-old mind. Just as it’s not about whether you were more into woodshop or calculus, but what you experienced in yourself within those particular classes. What part of you was realized in making that address plaque? What gift was leveraged in solving that equation? Or did you really come alive outside the classroom entirely—in the newspaper office or the art room or on the field taping ankles?
The old framing—find out what you love and figure out how to get someone to pay you to do it—is well-intentioned, but it’s ultimately unhelpful in a time when “the what” of almost everything is melting down, mixing together, and being reconstituted in new-fangled forms. Sure, there are still accountants and lawyers and teachers, but where and how these people work is changing all the time. Jobs are dying and being born constantly. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people stay with an employer for an average of 4.6 years.
My own career is a case in point. I graduated from college in 2002, after the dot com bubble burst. While friends just a few years older than me had been flown to Silicon Valley on expensive recruitment trips during their first job hunts, I was glued to Idealist.com hoping there was a living, breathing person reading all the CVs I was sending out.
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In my heart of hearts, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I was too pragmatic, not to mention from a middleclass Midwestern family where no one ever claimed to be something as indulgent as “an artist,” to actually expect to make a living doing it. But I was also too enthralled with words and the power of story to let the dream die completely. So what did I do? I pursued my writing—sending pitches, working on my own stuff whenever I got the chance—while also doing administrative work. All the while, I networked like my life depended on it—asking my heroes out to lunch, seeking out ambitious peers who weren’t afraid to share contacts and tips, doing creative projects with awesome friends.
And you know what? Fifteen years later, I surprise even myself by actually making a living doing what I love. Sometimes that comes in the straightforward form of writing books or my column. Sometimes it comes in forms that I never could have imagined in 2002. I am a researcher and strategist for the TED Prize. I started a boutique speakers bureau with my partner and best friend. I co-founded a nonprofit organization trying to shift the culture of journalism to focus more on solutions. What do these seemingly disparate things have in common?
Not a college major. Or a job title. Or even a field, per se. They are just all very me. My sensibility at work. My gifts leveraged. My favorite communities engaged. And, lo and behold, my bills paid.
So if you can’t count on one job or one field, what can you count on?
Your own curiosity, both about what you’re gifted at and what you’re interested in. You’re much safer cultivating a healthy sense of detachment to the details of where and what you work on, and instead, pursuing skills that excite you and learning things that interest you. When you get intimately familiar with how you see, solve, organize, empower, communicate, build, tear down, evaluate and create, you know how to be effective no matter what setting you might find yourself in.
Read more: Why ‘Find Your Passion’ Is Bad Advice
It would be way simpler to respond to some pithy questions that pop up on a screen and let the computer calculate the answer on what the hell you’re supposed to do with your life. But there is no computer with that kind of intelligence. It lives inside you. It lights up when you’re in that moment of feeling maximally and joyfully used in the world.
As one of my favorite authors and mentors, Parker Palmer, has written: “Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already posses.”
So instead of asking little kids, or even yourself, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” try asking this instead: “How do you want to be when you grow up?”
The answer could just lead to your dream jobs.
Courtney E. Martin is the author of The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, out of Seal Press this month. You can learn more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com