"What Do I Want To Do When I Grow Up?" Is The Wrong Question To Ask

Feel stuck in your career and like you're sailing without a rudder? Could be because you're asking yourself the wrong questions.

And so my chapter on "What do I want to do when I grow up?" comes to a close.

This is a process that started in the first grade when I was programmed to begin thinking about the singular career path that I would take for the rest of my life. The assignment from my teacher was "simple": Write down what you want to do and draw a picture of it.

But it wasn't simple for me. I watched all the other boys and girls write down "teacher" and "firefighter" and "doctor." I watched them draw firetrucks and sailboats and planes.

But my page stayed blank.

I pondered whether to be an entrepreneur like my mom, a computer programmer like my babysitter's dad, or a doctor who saved people's lives. I sat and sat and sat, unable to decide. I never finished that assignment that day. In fact, it took me over 20 years to complete it.

When I graduated from college, I set out on a journey to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

My unconventional career path took me to five major national and international cities. I stayed at jobs for as long as 18 months and as short as one month. I sold all of my belongings and moved cross-country because my intuition told me to. I worked with more than 15 different startups in one year of living in New York City. I started a blog to document my journey—both the learning and the mistakes. I started a website to document the stories of people boldly pursuing their life's work. I messed up two startups. I accidentally turned insomnia into a global movement. I met with tarot card readers, talked strategy with multimillion-dollar entrepreneurs, and helped a best-selling author launch a publishing company, all to see if I could answer the question I'd been wondering about since I was 5: What do I want to do when I grow up?

This journey was equally painful and empowering. It was messy and it was full of insight. I was criticized for being too whimsical and praised for taking bold risks. I had emotional breakdowns and experienced complete nirvana.

Most of all, I developed a new theory on work: I realized it's not about what I want to do with my life; it's about who I want to be.

When I look back on my experiences over the years, every single opportunity gave me exactly the lesson I needed to learn at the time. With every experience (and I had a lot of them in a short period of time!), I changed. I evolved. I was pushed way the hell outside my comfort zone. I was forced to face deep fears and insecurities.

As I evolved, something magical happened: I stopped focusing on the end goal—the perfect job, the one thing I wanted to do. I instead began focusing on taking care of myself and identifying the daily behaviors that make me feel healthy, fulfilled, and at my best. I discovered what it means to truly live and to enjoy living.

Slowly, the question "What do I want to do with my life?" shifted to "Who am I?," "How do I want to live my life?," and "What do I have to give?"

And, guess what happened? I finally discovered my life's work.

Through this shift, I learned that what moves me and resonates deeply is enabling others to overcome the fears and obstacles that hold them back from leading the life they're meant to lead. I discovered that everything inside of me lights up when I can help someone navigate a challenge so they make progress toward an inspired life. I learned that by openly sharing the truth of my journey—both the ups and the downs—I'm helping others take baby steps and bold leaps, too.

And so the chapter "What do I want to do?" comes to a close. And now, the chapter "Who I am" begins.

Amber Rae is Founder & CEO of The Bold Academy, a life accelerator designed to help you lead the life you were meant to lead. Applications for Bold Academy San Francisco are now open. For more on Amber, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Brittany Randolph]

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  • Duanekatene777

    I've just come across this article and can absolutely relate. I have been through horrific working experiences. I have worked in many working environments all which have led me to where I am now.

  • Paul_Sollimo

    Interesting perspective and very thought provoking.  You seem like someone that would be interesting to have a coffee and conversation with.   I've spent a lot of time and energy beating myself up over this (invalid) question of "what do I want to do?/what is my dream job?":  I'm 42 and have yet to figure it out, but as you say maybe I'm asking the wrong question.    I had a similar experience in a college class where our final exam was to write what we would be doing during 3 ideal days  5 years into the future.  I nearly had a panic attack leading up to the final exam because I knew I had not idea how to answer that question.  It was an hour and a half exam. An hour into the exam I had yet to write one word in my blue-book exam booklet.  I had a death stare locked on my professor the whole time ...  how could he make this the final exam question and put me through this?!   He walked by, saw my blank booklet and cautioned me that I'd better start writing something.  In the last 30 minutes, I just started writing stream of conscious and ended up writing a humorous story about the creation of the universe, humanity, prejudice and cultural evolution.    I got an "A" on the exam.  Still don't know what I want to do or who I want to be... but I think it's high time I started asking that question. Thanks for the inspiration and story.

  • Elsa Santika

    It is very much of what I am experiencing right now. Was always figuring out What I want to do instead of pondering Who I am. I am on my journey of figuring out " Who I am" right now. Thank you Amber! 

  • Wandermyway

    This could be me (the starting and stopping, the moving and not knowing). I like your conclusion. thanks for sharing the journey.

  • A Moustafa75

    I understand the concept but do not agree on the conclusion......If you have vision for your life as early as you can, You may not become as lost as you are......
    Take steve jobs, marysa mayers, jack welch and others.

    Just opinion

  • Steven

     Not everyone is clear.  Hence the confusion.   Those people you mentioned were clear.

  • Matthew

    It's all about "asking the right question." Otherwise, we'll wind up with the wrong answer. Thanks for the reminder Amber!

  • Don Grgic

    Amber this is brilliant. I have been asking the wrong question for way too many years... yet like you say the answers are there. Thank you for the clarity.

  • Marion Aubry

    When I was in 3rd or 4th grade I had a similar assignment: what do you want to do (or be - dont remember) in 20 years. I didn't choose one thing or got stuck, I wanted to be: a teacher, a baker, a dancer "because I can dance all dances" sic, and also President of France (quite ambitious haha) and I also thought I would get married to one of my classmate I was in love with... 

    In high school I had found my calling: journalist. I've always wanted to be a journalist, I went to college to pursue this career, but discovered other opportunities along the way. Maybe one day I will work as a journalist, the calling is still "calling" sometimes, but I have accepted that one can change one's mind about career. After "giving up" on journalism, while in grad school, I've struggled a lot with this idea "what do I want to do when I grow up". Until I realize this is the wrong question, you cannot find out the answer until you do things, experiment. 

    Few months ago I was asked in an interview, for a job I never thought of, if I had a dream job. My answer came out so simply, like a revelation, "I don't believe in dream job, I believe in opportunities and different experiences." I'm so happy not to pressure myself anymore with this haunting question and we should stop pressuring kids and students.

    If you haven't watch "wear sunscreen" you def should http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... 
    "Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn't know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don't."

  • aviva jaye

    "I instead began focusing on taking care of myself and identifying the daily behaviors that make me feel healthy, fulfilled, and at my best." I feel as though I had a positive conviction about this growing up and even throughout college, but have since struggled to keep hold of this value in my life. I am glad to see others embracing the journey of becoming who they want to be and what they wish to give, rather than what they want to "do." In being our best, we do our best. Thanks, Amber, for sharing.

  • Robbin Luckett

    Encouraging others to believe in oneself is admirable. I've been taught to keep my eye on the goal, but if the goal is on myself, wouldn't that be self-righteous, arrogant? Or is your point to find happiness in running the race? Thought provoking article. Thank you.

  • Barry L. Davis

    Excellent point! As a career coach for many years, this question is not only short-sighted, it is counterproductive. I seek to inspire others to find, as Marsha Sinetar calls it, "work as gift of self."

  • mekalav

    Awesome :-) thanks for an inspiring post and it definitely gives me a reason to think .. 

  • Bruno Marsala

    really enjoyed your post. Excellent read. Bravo to you for figuring out the next chapter. I too am on that path. Congrats.

  • Happyface

    If "What do I want to do when I grow up?," what question should replace that?

  • Guest

    Seems to me the article is saying one should focus on the following: What can I do now (today) to  "take care of myself and behave in a way that makes me feel healthy, fulfilled, and at my best"?