What do you want to be when you grow up? Sound familiar?

As I explained in my post Why ambition can’t be measured’, language is powerful. The words we use can create perceptions that are often inaccurate, misguided and lead to a lot of social anxiety.

To express this point more clearly, I’m going to refer to a Ted Talk by Emilie Wapnick that resonated with me massively. Emilie shines a light on a very popular question that comes up in conversation time and time again, from very early childhood, through to young adulthood. The question I’m talking about is “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

This phrase implies that we each have to be one thing for the entire duration of our careers. Now, economically, specialization makes sense because it can allow for economies of scale. Essentially, the premise is that specialised roles will lead to increased output and thereby economic growth. Great. But, when we’re talking to individuals, many of whom are likely to have an array of different interests that they would be keen to pursue, is it not a little strange to speak as though they’re a tiny cog in a machine (metaphorically, the economy); implying there’s somewhere they need to find a permanent fit if they don’t want to be left out?

Granted, a child that’s asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is unlikely to feel immediate panic at the thought of having to give a definitive answer. But, the problem is that this question is bounced around thoughtlessly (often as a simple way to mitigate awkward small talk with a distant relative or family friend) and it’s reappearance during social interactions throughout one’s life can subconsciously make us infer that there must be a right answer. Well, there isn’t.

Many people will have a clear vocation; that’s admirable, lucky and great for them. But many people don’t – and that’s great too! We don’t have to be one thing when we grow up; we can have multiple roles, so embrace your many interests and get excited about the opportunities they can lead to!

For example, Michelle Obama is a US qualified lawyer. She worked as an associate at a top law firm in Chicago for a few years before pursuing a career in public service, working as an assistant to Mayor Richard Daley and then as assistant commissioner of planning and development of the City of Chicago. She also became executive director of a non-profit leadership-training program and worked at the University of Chicago as associate dean of student services before becoming executive director of community relations and external affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals. This was all before her outstanding contribution as first lady.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and the world’s richest person since 2017, first worked at a fintech telecommunications start-up, before transitioning into the banking industry and working on Wall Street for a few years. He founded Amazon in 1993. Arnold Schwarzenegger had a hugely successful career as a world champion bodybuilder, before becoming and award winning Hollywood actor, and then governor of California in 2003 at the age of 56. Vera Wang, now a notorious name in fashion didn’t enter the fashion industry until her 40s. Before that, she was a figure skater and journalist!

I mention in another post, ‘Advice to my 23 year old self’, advice that I received from Laura Sheehan, who was a speaker in another great Ted Talk (you guessed it – I’m Ted fan numero uno). Laura was actually a US-qualified lawyer, but spoke to me about the many different roles she had experienced. She advised me to view my career not as a ladder, but as a unique piece of art. Like a piece of art, your career is unique to you, it will consist of layers, each of which builds on the previous one. The important thing is to enjoy each experience and learn as much as possible from it; you don’t have to visualize the end product just yet, so don’t narrow your options.

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