How To Figure Out What To Be When You Grow Up – As A Grown-Up


Raise your hand if your parents or a high school guidance counselor ever told you that you can be whatever you want. Anything at all. Just take your pick!

Awesome, right? What a lovely, encouraging message.  😉

Only it didn’t work out quite like that. Only you weren’t told how to figure out what you want. Only you weren’t told…

  • how to fully explore all sides of your personality
  • how to take into account all of your preferences and talents
  • how to separate your real wants from those voices in your head that were telling you what you should want
  • how to look for possibilities beyond that list of majors in that particular catalog
  • how it’s possible to enjoy your work and make a living
  • how it’s ok to want it all
  • how to get it all

So you didn’t get it quite right. Maybe you never really made a choice at all and just drifted into a job because of circumstances. Maybe you made the wrong choice because you didn’t have the right tools for choosing at the time. Maybe your choice was ok for a while, but not anymore…

Whatever happened, I’m guessing much of the above resonates with you, since you are reading this article. It sure resonates with me. Picture me here at my laptop eagerly raising my hand for all of it. 🙂

When I finally came to the realization that I was terribly unhappy with where my own career choices had led me, I had no clue what to do. I had some vague ideas for alternatives, but I was terrified of making another wrong move. So I decided to take my time and figure out how to make this choice right once and for all. And I learned a lot in the process!

In this article, I want to share with you what I know about making a career change that will lead you to work you are totally googly-eyes over. Making career decisions is a big deal and simply reading this one article will not get you your dream job. But the five steps I outline below will for sure set you on the path for figuring it all out.

Career Change: How To Figure Out What To Be When You Grow Up – As A Grown Up

1. Start from Scratch

When you are unhappy at a job, the most obvious thing to do is to update your resume with your current skill set and work experience and start looking through job ads for other positions you might be qualified for. This will work just fine if your dream is to be using your current skill set and you just haven’t found the right environment for applying those skills yet. Let’s say you love your job as an accountant, but you can’t stand the douchebags in the neighboring cubicles. Another job in the same or similar field might give you the change of environment you’ve been looking for.

But the thing is… If you are not excited about the actual tasks you are performing on a daily basis, you will never be fully satisfied. And by the way, it doesn’t matter if you are fantastic, mediocre, or terrible at those tasks – you will be miserable regardless. Just because you have acquired certain skills or managed to become good at something, doesn’t mean that is what is going to make you happy.

I happen to be really good at number crunching and I’ve been paid a comfortable salary to be a number cruncher. The only problem is that number crunching bores me to tears. So switching to a different number crunching job and expecting to like it is a bit like putting my broccoli on a different plate and expecting it to start tasting like chocolate.

To find work that you will actually enjoy doing, make yourself reconsider everything and start the career decision making process from scratch:

  • Pretend you are 18 again. Pretend you never got a degree in anything. Pretend you never had a real job. Your whole life is ahead of you. (And unless you are 99 years old, don’t forget that you actually DO still have a whole lot of life ahead of you!)
  • Completely ignore your current skill set for now.
  • Completely ignore your past work experience for now except as a guide for what you like and don’t like.
  • Completely ignore what the voices in your head think would be “sensible” or “reasonable” or “doable”.

If you have a hard time letting go of the past, I recommend I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was: How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It by Barbara Sher. The exercises in this book will magically poof away all the baggage that you might be carrying around. 😉

2. Get to Know Yourself

Maybe you didn’t have the tools or the life experience to know who you were or what you really wanted when you were a teenager. And how could you? At age 18, most of us were struggling to decide whether to drink one more Mike’s Hard Lemonade and whether to hook up with that cute guy in Western Civ. It’s a bit much to ask an 18-year-old to really understand the ramifications of a career choice.

But take the second chance NOW to analyze the crap out of yourself. Become intimately familiar with every aspect of your personality and temperament. Figure out what your natural strengths and weaknesses are. Be brutally honest with yourself. Forget about who you think you should be or who you think other people want you to be. Focus on who you actually are. The good, the bad, and the ugly parts of you all provide valuable insight into finding the best new career path for you. For starters:

  • Find out your Myers-Briggs personality type. The Myers-Briggs system divides people into 16 personality types. When you know your type, you can learn what kinds of work other people who are similar to you thrive in. Read this article to learn your type.
  • Get The Pathfinder by Nicholas Lore. It touches on Myers-Briggs, but also includes several additional questionnaires to get you thinking about qualities and preferences that are worth taking into consideration. (Because of the questionnaires, you should get the paperback and not the Kindle version.)

Related: How To Find Your Passion: Ask These 10 Questions

Related: The Single Most Helpful Exercise For Figuring Out What You Should Do With Your Life

Related: The Books That Put Me On The Right Path In Life

3. Let Yourself Want It All

I think that the simple reason many of us end up with careers we don’t love is because we settle. We think it’s not possible to find work we love. We think we are not good enough. We think we are not supposed to love the work we do (duh, that’s why it’s called work!). We think we don’t deserve to love the work we do. We think it would be too hard to make a change.

But I’m going to ask you to stretch yourself. Let yourself dream. Let yourself want it all. The higher you set the bar, the better the outcome. Even if you only get 80% of “the all” that you want in the end, it will be much closer to your ideal than not letting yourself dream and not going after your dreams at all.

Your dream career should meet at least the following criteria:

  • The work has to let you use the strengths of your personality type. See this article about How To Make Your Brain Happy.
  • You have to be comfortable with the work environment. Even if you love the work itself, it’s hard to be satisfied if the people you work with, the commute to reach the work, or the location of the work stress you out.
  • The work has to be meaningful to you in some way.
  • You have to be able to make an income you feel comfortable with. Money doesn’t bring happiness, but constant worry over being able to meet your basic needs brings stress.

Just for fun, I’ll give you an example of what my personal criteria for a dream career look like.

  • My work needs to include reading, writing, problem solving, and coming up with ideas. I need to be able to switch between different areas of focus, because I get bored easily.
  • I’m very introverted, so I want to do the vast majority of my work in solitude from home. I want complete control over work hours, so I can rest when I need it and I can spend time with my family when I want.
  • I want to feel like I’m helping people in some way.
  • I want to continue to provide for my family and maintain close to my current standard of living.

Can you guess my dream career? 🙂

4. Figure Out What Careers Best Fit Your Wants

Most of us have done a whole lot of adjusting and compromising and settling to force ourselves to fit into a career. But to achieve career satisfaction, just the opposite needs to happen. You need to find work that fits you just as you are. And just because you haven’t encountered it yet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There are thousands of careers out there, many that you’ve probably never heard of.

Start collecting a list of potential careers that fit most or all of your criteria. Err on the side of including too many, rather than not enough at this point. Don’t rule careers out because there are some obstacles. Here are a few ways to add to your list:

  • The Pathfinder by Nicholas Lore gives suggestions based on personality type and other characteristics. (For what it’s worth, the suggestions were spot-on for my husband and me.)
  • Do What You Are by Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron is another good book with career listings by personality type.
  • Google “what careers are there” for ideas.
  • Brain-storm with a friend.

Once you are satisfied that you have explored every single possible career option out there, pick the best fit for you, taking all your criteria into account.

If you are lucky enough to find more than one option that meets all your criteria, pick the one that seems most attainable right now. Or consider combining multiple careers. Or become a serial career-monogamist. There is no law that says you have to stick to just one career for the rest of your life.

5. Deal With The Obstacles

When you finally figure out what your dream career is, you’ll be on a happy high flying around in la-la-land clouds.

For a while.

Until the shit that is reality hits the fan and throws you back on the ground. Until you remember that there are all kinds of obstacles on the road between here and dream-career-country. There are fallen trees and big-ass rocks and police-check-points on that road. There are mortgages and kids to be fed and degree requirements. There are time constraints and judgmental mother-in-laws and will-powers that have gone missing. Thinking about it all hurts your brain and just makes you want to go to sleep. And it makes most people want to stop right there.

Related: What To Do When You Hate Your Job But Feel Like You Can’t Quit

But guess what? You don’t have to. Every single one of those obstacles can be dealt with and crossed. Make a list of all your obstacles and brainstorm ways to get over those humps. Your personal circumstances will be unique and the obstacles may seem insurmountable. For countless examples of how other career changers have dealt with typical obstacles and a systematic method for doing so, I would recommend another Barbara Sher book: Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want.

In addition, here are a few revelations that have been particularly helpful to me as I’m working through my own career transition:

  • Although it’s sometimes necessary, career change doesn’t always require going back to school.
  • All of your income doesn’t have to come from one source.
  • Some new careers can get started on the side, while you are still working your current job.
  • The more specific your goals are, the easier it is to define the obstacles and deal with them.
  • The fact that a career transition might take a few years is no reason not to do it. Let’s say it would take you five years to go back to school part-time to get into your dream career. In five years, do you want to be ready for your dream career or do you want to be still stuck in the job you don’t like?


What do you think? Did you find these steps helpful? Anything else you would recommend doing? I would love to hear about your career struggles, discoveries, and successes in the comments below. 🙂


The Single Most Helpful Exercise For Figuring Out What You Should Do With Your Life
How To Find Your Passion: Ask These 10 Questions
How To Find Out Your Personality Type
How To Make Your Brain Happy Based On Your Personality Type
What To Do When You Hate Your Job But Feel Like You Can’t Quit
3 Ways To Make A Living Without A Job
The Books That Put Me On The Right Path In Life
5 Ways You Might Be Standing In The Way Of Your Best Life
No Willpower? How To Crush Your Goals Anyway
Getting Over Regret: How To Move On


How to figure out what to be when you grow up - when you are already a grown-up!  This article will help you get started with a career change...

Career Advice For Career Changers - Love your career? If not, change it! This article will help you figure out the first steps for a career change.


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