Friday, May 17, 2013

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I think we've probably all heard the old joke that goes - Why are people always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up?

They're looking for ideas.

The very fact that we can laugh at, and relate to, such a joke tells me there are a lot of us who should have grown up a long time ago; who are still looking for what we want to be when we Grow Up™.

When it comes to changing careers we live in a time that is, so far, unique in human history.  People are living long enough to have two full blown start-to-finish careers in their lifetime.  Maybe three.  You really can wait until 30 (although I don't recommend it to anyone who isn't already there) to decide it's time to get your life together and make something of yourself, and still live a long and productive life.  Education is more readily available to us than ever before, and we have the ability to meet people and learn things from our living rooms that would have taken an airplane one or two generations ago, and an 8 month wagon train expedition 8 generations ago.

That gives us a huge amount of choice, but it sometimes gives us too much choice.  In terms of the grand scheme of things, it wasn't all that long ago that your career choices were limited to the family farm, the priesthood, and whatever Masters your family could afford to apprentice you out to, and afford to ship you to (which usually meant within a day or two's riding distance).  Now, every one of those things is highly respectable, but if you dream of something else, you have options today that didn't exist a few generations ago.

Now, all this doesn't mean that, "you can be anything you want to be."  If I woke up tomorrow and decided that my life's ambition was to be an NBA star, I'd be sorely disappointed.  Being substantially less than 6 feet tall and having zero natural basketball talent to build from, that's just not going to happen.  There has to be a balancing point between what is realistic, and what we can dream.

So how do you decide what you want to be when you Grow Up™?

In Jon Acuff's recently released book, Start, he recommends looking for things you can't stop doing.  Good advice, but it needs a little direction to make it shine.  If what you can't stop doing is playing video games, you're probably not going to make a career out of that.  As a matter of fact, a good friend of mine almost tried to do that very thing a couple of years ago.  He's a big gamer (which is fine as a hobby, so long as it stays just a hobby and doesn't keep you away from the more important things in your life) and he was going through his own existential funk just like mine.  He had a strong desire to do something more productive and useful than continue working for tips in a job that he couldn't care less about, and got caught by an advertisement for online education that was offering a degree in video game production.  Do you see the trap?

Playing video games ≠ making video games.  Those two sound like a match made in heaven at first glance, but they're really not the same at all.  Making video games is about the creative process, while playing them is just about the entertainment.  In effect, instead of doing what he loved, that would have meant doing something he had absolutely no passion for, so that other people could do what he loved.  Now, if he was also a writer at heart, maybe he could have worked his way into a place where he was professionally reviewing games.  That would have allowed him to combine things he loved, but getting an online degree in video game production would have gotten him a job fetching coffee at a software company with the hopes of someday doing something that paid more, but still didn't light any fires.

Don't get me wrong, huge kudos to the guy for trying to make a positive change, and even huger kudos for realizing that his first idea wasn't the right one for him.  Right now, he's studying to get his certification as a home inspector, which actually involves doing things he enjoys, and he's got a job lined up for as soon as he gets his cert.  Welcome to a Real Job™.

I think my good buddy's experience really highlights the key.  Look at what you spend your time doing when you have no restrictions on your time.  Look at the things you do (whether you wanted to do them or not), and write out the ones that gave you a sense of satisfaction.  The things that you really just can't stop doing.

  • Fixing things, especially computers (but cars and household stuff is great too)
  • Photography
  • Being sarcastic
  • Spending time with my wife
  • Writing
  • Hiking
  • Cooking, especially baking
Not a bad list there for me.  I could probably triple the length of that list easily, but we just need an example here.  Now, let's look at ways to make a living from those things.
  • Pretty much any kind of tradesman job.
  • As a photographer (duh)
  • People do not pay for sarcasm
  • Did someone say Sugar Mamma?
  • Fiction Author.  Non-fiction Author.
  • Tour Guide
  • Become a chef. Open a bakery.
The last step, is the most important.  It's the one that can really help you to figure out what to do, and it's simple as long as you're honest with yourself.  Smash those two lists together, and see what the consequences really look like for you. 
  • I think there's just about nothing better than looking at a finished project and saying, "I did this."  While I'm pretty handy in general, I have a real talent for fixing computers.  People will pay me to fix their computers.
  • There's a lot of different ways to make a living as a photographer, but the only one I really have a passion for is wedding photography.  Capturing the interactions of people in love, with pictures, sets me on fire.  People will pay me for that skill and passion, but I either have to do a lot of other photography that I don't have a passion for, or keep a day job, if I want to make ends meet.  If I go the day-job route, it needs to be "regular" hours so I can meet with clients and have Saturdays off.
  • I could be sarcastic and unemployed.  
  • Uh, no.  My wife, God bless her, is not Sugar Mamma material.   If your spouse is a multi-millionaire, this may be a viable option for you.  If not, move on.
  • I've tried writing fiction, and I suck at it.  As for non-fiction, come talk to me in 10 years.  Once I've actually finished growing up, I might be qualified.  For now, enjoy my blog.
  • Uh, no.  This one just simply does nothing for me.
  • A successful chef is capable of creating their own recipes with enough flair and unique style to fill a complete menu, and from chefs I've talked to, I'd spend more time supervising than actually cooking.  Not for me.  Opening a bakery on the other hand, could be a lot of fun.  The trouble is that it's a lot like being a chef, only worse.  I love to bake, and I make some killer bread, but the end game here just doesn't appeal to me.
People skip this step far too often, and end up one step away from what they love doing, with no clear path back to it.  They end up running a restaurant when what they loved was cooking, or working in a cubicle at a game company when what they loved was playing games.  It's an easy trap to fall into, but it's also an easy trap to avoid when you methodically list out your choices and their consequences.

A few will almost always float to the top.  There's going to be one or two things in your list that get you excited.  Maybe several.  Once you find a few good options, talk to people.  Tell your friends and family what you want to do, and be prepared for some of them to tell you that you're crazy.  Be prepared for the little voice in the back of your head that tells you that you're aiming too high and you'll never make it.

So, what do you want to be when you Grow Up™?