Many of us have been asked throughout our lives “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, and many of us have re-visited that simple question again and again for ourselves. This is a loaded question, as the expected answer is around a vocation or calling of some kind. Not an easy thing to know when you are three, or ten, twenty-three or (sometimes) even when you are forty-three. Yet the front halves of our lives are all about the determination and pursuit of vocation, falling into the societal expectation that we have access to the penultimate answer to this question. But have we? Is that even the right question to be addressing? Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of innovation and human resources, argues in his book The Element that most adults have no idea what their true talents are, or what they’re truly capable of achieving. “They bump along the bottom doing what they’re competent in and what they feel they need to do, and wonder why they can’t feel passion or belonging in their commitments”.
We satisfice. We find something we can comfortably do well and we stick with it, even when it doesn’t make us particularly happy, usually because it doesn’t make us particularly unhappy. It is a very unique few who have said “chuck it” to the world and gone on to do what they wanted, whether it was viable as an occupation, or socially acceptable, or not. We admire people who can do that for themselves…but knowing their path, which was bumpy and daunting, we figure we’ll just stick with what we know. And there is nothing wrong with that, but always ask yourself a different question. Rather than the usual “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question, ask yourself “What do you want to experience when you grow up?” When you switch the word “be” to “experience” you are accessing a whole different range of important information, one even children catch on to (test it out, go ask one and listen to their answers). Within this question we have more access to wisdom, rather than just a cut-and-dried list of possible vocations. What is your answer to this question? In answering it, do you have access to it consistently in your life today?
If not, this doesn’t mean you have to “chuck it”, and go on a journey of “Eat, Pray, Love” proportions to find it (unless you want to, of course). It simply means you are in a place where the answer to that question may illuminate the path towards greater well-being for you. It is an opportunity to pause and reflect, and if you are contemplating this space in life, as good a place to start as any. In fact, the majority of us don’t need to “rip and replace” our occupations, sometimes we just need to look at how we are fulfilling them to see the opportunity to bring into our lives more of what we want to experience. I agree with Sir Robinson, I see first hand the many individuals who are lacking occupational passion, and often question their commitment to their livelihoods today, but I also have faith that when we go out to be productive in the world, we don’t miss the mark of our own true “callings” so widely that it causes most of us unrelenting suffering. Figuring out what we are good at is an iterative process, one that evolves and changes over time. I couldn’t write the content for these blogs in my 20’s – I may have (if blogging had existed back then) still chosen to write, but it would not have been about helping others fulfill their potential – which is something that was decades of real life and work experience in the making. If you look back over the depth and breadth of your career so far, from what you chose to pursue in high school to where you are today, you likely don’t see a perfectly straight line (A to B, to C…). Despite our best intentions, real life isn’t particularly linear. Even if you don’t like where you ended up, you always have the option to move more closely towards what you want to experience at any time. But there is a catch.
I work with many individuals who are doing just that, moving from executing on a vocation or profession, to taking their interests and passions and pursuing more of what they want to experience. For some it is as simple as committing to use their voice in new and different ways, speaking up with new ideas, asking probing questions, becoming more visible and finding themselves more committed and with a deeper sense of purpose and belonging within the community in which they are working today. For others it is more radical, taking their profession into entrepreneur-ism, being able to apply innovation, or pursue a new level of balance brought about by deeper control of their schedules and professional pursuits. The catch to pursuing what you’d like to experience, is that you need to give yourself permission to experience it. Not just permission to “speak up”, but permission recognizing you are worthy enough to “speak up”, worthy enough to start a company, or to put your own well being first. If you are not ready to acknowledge your own worthiness, you will not be able to consistently give yourself the permission needed to act upon what you want to experience in life (professionally or personally). The result is more like a two-week vacation in a 52-week work schedule than a way of living. When we think about life, this is not how most of us envisioned experiencing it – with only two or three fulfilling moments, weeks or experiences; we aspire to 52 weeks a year of life-worthy experiences.
When I asked one of the little people in my life what he wanted to experience when he grew up his answers were wonderfully sincere. He wanted to know what it would be like to ride a horse (“what do you do if your hat flew off? Would the horse know to stop?”), and to hold a fire hose spurting water “really, really fast” (“would it lift me up off the ground? That would be cool!”). After exploring some these interesting avenues he became quiet and (without any adult prompting) said, “I guess I would like to keep being happy, like when I play LEGOs”. Children come into this world with “worthiness” baked right in; it is the trials and tribulations of life that can (if we let it) pound it out of us. That is why we like posing these types of questions to little people; as adults we are constantly awed and amused by their beautiful, as yet un-marred point of view. Anything is possible when you are not responsible for car payments and mortgages. But what if in asking ourselves this same question we also dispensed with assuming we weren’t worth it? What if we asked ourselves instead, “What would this give me if I did do it?” What if we paid more attention to the way we want to experience something, the way it makes us feel? Would this enable us to take steps to experience belonging? Would we be more committed to our pursuits and comfortably know we are competent? Does acknowledging our own worth enable the permission to make us happier by pursuing experience rather than simply vocation? Would this give us greater access to a consistent presence of belonging, commitment and passion in what we do?
Is it time to find out?