A simple question, right? It should have been, but when Maureen Anderson asked me during a recent guest appearance on her Career Clinic radio show, I didn’t really have an answer. I asked my mom, my aunt, and I also racked my brain to come up with an answer.
Of course, I also got caught up in what age would be my point of reference. I drew a blank when I defined the range from zero to 10 years old. At around 10, I remember setting up a little table in the front yard to sell apples (I grew up on a small apple farm in case you were wondering where I was getting the apples). Our deal was pretty simple…I pick the apples and sell them, I keep the proceeds.
As a teen, I still wasn’t able to articulate what I wanted to do when I grew up. No wanting to be a doctor, a lawyer, a fireman, or a policeman. But I did learn a lot about what I didn’t want to do. I worked as a day laborer for a monument company where I shuttled wheel barrels full of cement to grave sights so they could install tombstones—it was a great workout, but definitely hard labor. Cross that one off the list. Then I spent a day working in quality control at an aluminum can manufacturer. And that’s where I learned that, after staring at cans for a few hours, I was completely incapable of noticing defects. Obviously that didn’t work out. Then there was my stint working at a car wash. The job didn’t require much skill or thought—I just had to dry off the cars and make sure they didn’t plow into the building as they left the track. That job last two summers. Not glamorous, but we did get minimum wage plus tips so it wasn’t all bad.
And then there were the jobs I told my mom I was going to do when I was ready to quit school during my first semester of college because I was having a hard time adjusting to life on campus—bus driver, garbage truck driver, cook at McDonald’s. Not that any of those jobs did or didn’t require a college education, but rather they were just the first jobs that came to mind as I was stressing out over a microeconomics exam.
Thinking more about it, I realized I chose most of my jobs like I chose my undergraduate major. I didn’t go after something because I was really passionate about it or because it was something I was really interested in, I chose the lesser of two evils. When I chose my major, I didn’t chose economics because I wanted to be an economist, I chose my major because it was “not science.” So that ruled out biology, chemistry, environmental science, neuroscience, and physics. I also didn’t fancy myself as an anthropologist or a sociologist either. So, since I thought economics was fairly similar to business (my declared major), I went with that. And looking back, when it came to work the same thing held true. I chose jobs (or left jobs) because I didn’t like them (see the pouring cement in cemeteries reference I made earlier).
I know one thing is for sure, if you were to randomly sample 1000 people, asking them what they wanted to be when they grew up, career counselor likely wouldn’t make the top five. And that was obviously the case for me—because I didn’t know about it. Yet, more than 10 years later, here I am working as a career counselor.
I figured out what I wanted to do when I grew up by process of elimination and a little luck. How about you? Did you know were you’d end up when you were five? Are you still trying to figure it out? And did you have any off-the-wall jobs along the way?
Shawn Graham is Director of MBA Career Services at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job (www.courtingyourcareer.com).