When we were younger, we were often asked: what do you want to be when you grow up?
At first, as bright-eyed children we would relish the opportunity to talk about how we wanted to be a fire-fighter, doctor, athlete, or any other career we had an interest in (YouTube star/influencer according to recent surveys). This was met with either supportive enthusiasm, or laughter. As we got older we started to identify with certain career paths diving deeper into the journey of becoming the thing we wanted. Alternatively, a lot of us were on a different boat; feeling bad for not knowing what our “purpose” was.
In both cases, I believe we were led a bit off course thinking there is only one perfect option for us out there - that we just need to follow our passions and our dream job will come knocking on our door.
From a young age we’re conditioned to tie our core identity to a profession. We are reinforced by our parents, friends, teachers and society that what we do is who we are.
However, no job - or a singular passion for that matter- uses all of a person’s possible skills and potential. A job title is merely one component of a complex person who has other skills, passions, challenges, ideas, values and much, much more. What we should be focusing on instead is making sure we are living up to our values, rather than a fancy job title or obsessing about the amount of money a profession makes us.
Your career or job title doesn’t define you. It’s just one small slice of your identity, and swapping out one for another doesn’t change the core of who you really are deep down.
In order to really find fulfillment in life we have to focus on the things that make us ourselves in the absence of whatever society imposes on us. Your societal and cultural up-bringing has conditioned you to value certain things, and as is the case in Western societies, our entire self-worth is often tied to what we do for a living. Now we cringe at the dreaded question we get at parties: “so, what do you do?”.
“So…. What do you do?”
Here is the problem with this: if you love what you do, but are perhaps not doing as well as you would have hoped for, then any perceived failure affects your identity in a negative way since you have over-indexed on identifying with it.
On the other hand, if you have no idea what your passion is, or perhaps don’t even have a job, then this question also creates a general sense of failure and anxiety.
At some stages of our lives we might even enjoy the question. Excited to tell everyone that you have finally “made it”. But we must remember that this feeling can be fleeting. Jobs come and go, things happen (COVID?), and we are yet again left alone with our fragile identity that is closely tied with what we thought was “success”.
But if we fully understand who we are, then we will not be in conflict. If we know our values and live our lives according to them we can be immovable and equanimous.
Lately, I have been musing about how we have come to define success. This endless insatiable quest to be somebody, to constantly improve - what's it all about? Can we just be satisfied with what is? Kapil Gupta, an advisor to high-level performers, talks about how we have been conditioned to see performance as a target to be reached:
“The questions that have forever been asked relate to ‘doing things in order to perform better.’ Performance is traditionally pursued as a goal. As a result, it is viewed from the standpoint of activities, rituals, behaviours, and do’s and don’ts. This is not where consistent world class performance comes from. For performance cannot be viewed as a goal. One must not be interested in how to ‘improve’ performance. One must be genuinely interested in where it lives, how it moves, and what causes it to merge. This allows one to become dominant in his field. It allows him to own his performance. It allows him to become a master.” (from his book Direct Truth: Uncompromising, non-prescriptive Truths to the enduring questions of life)
Performers of any craft - be it sport, business, parenting or otherwise- have become obsessed with success without ever defining what it means. I explore this idea from an athletic perspective in my own book:
“Who is the greatest athlete of all time? Can we ever objectively answer that question? Was it the person who won the most trophies and scored the most points? Or maybe it was the one who had a career filled with mostly mediocrity, yet managed to gracefully transition to other ventures and stay happy and healthy with plenty of friendships and stories to share?”
Ask yourself- Who am I really? What is it that I value?
Children don’t play this finite adult game. They are naturally driven by pure curiosity. If each time a child reached for an object, or did something, and the parent asked “what is your goal?” much wonderment, joy, and knowledge would be denied to the child.
So this comes back around to our central thesis - who do you want to be? Not what do you want to accomplish.
Don’t focus on what your job title should be (Doctor, influencer, psychologist, athlete..), or the amount of trophies you have in your literal or metaphorical case.
Ask yourself- Who am I really? What is it that I value?
Get very clear on the things most important to you. Is it freedom? Is it time?
Maybe it’s making money?
Do you want to teach others? Do you like writing, or speaking? Would you rather work with your hands or do you thrive in a digital world?
In the next 3-5 years, what is a problem you would like to solve? If you are a student, what questions would you like your education to answer?
What activities were you already doing as a child that you still like to do now? What kind of work do you find yourself coming back to again and again even when you don’t succeed right away? What activities put you into a state of flow?
“In the next 3-5 years, what is a problem you would like to solve? If you are a student, what questions would you like your education to answer?”
There is no right or wrong. Just think about it. People need to be encouraged to set targets and trajectories for themselves and their careers, but also to revise them constantly in response to the changing context, uncontrollable life factors and the new possibilities that are offered with change. What we do as a vocation is just a small part of who we are, and they are prone to constant change. But that is OK as long as you have the foundational capacity to go with the flow.
In career counselling, there is a theory called Planned Happenstance which offers some radically different advice for us:
Acknowledge that it is normal, inevitable, and even desirable for unplanned events to influence your career
Think of indecision not as a problem to be remedied, but as a state of planful open-mindedness (growth mindset) that will enable you to capitalize on unforeseen future events
Take advantage of unplanned events (such as the devastation that is COVID) as opportunities to try new activities, develop new interests, challenge old beliefs, and continue lifelong learning
Initiate actions to increase the likelihood of beneficial unplanned events in the future (have a bias for action- reach out to people, ask for directions, join that online group, etc.)
I am not here to tell you which one is the right path for you; you need to decipher that for yourself. There is nothing wrong with pursuing excellence as long as you define what that means to you. But understand this: perfection or mastery can never really be attained; they can only be strived for. Instead of the pursuit of mastery, we need to get better at mastering the pursuit. What are you pursuing, and how do you measure success?
P.S: I recommend taking some scientifically validated surveys such as the Via character strengths survey. It's a great starting point to get a better sense of your values.