Who Are You? Vs. What Do You Want To Be?


I’ve written previously about the topic of career direction and coming to a clear idea of what it is you’d like to be doing in the future. Knowing what kind of employment you’d like makes it easier for others to be on the lookout for jobs you’d be interested in, leads, contacts and mentors have a better understanding of how to help you move forward.

That being said, when someone asks you, “What do you want to be?”, doesn’t it make you feel somehow inadequate here in the present? The reason perhaps behind the feelings that emerge is because the person asking the question is implying or stating quite plainly that where you are and where you want to be aren’t the same place.

I made this mistake once when I asked a client who had obtained a job as a Dishwasher, what he really wanted to be. “A Dishwasher” is all he said. “Oh I know that’s what you do now, but looking ahead, what do you really want to be?” “A Dishwasher. I’m happy doing this”. You see I had imposed my own set of values unintentionally, believing that like me, he only saw the position of Dishwasher as a step to something else, such as an entry level in the restaurant business, and one day he’d like to Prep, Cook and then perhaps run the kitchen and maybe one day the business itself. Not everybody aspires to the same things.

So when we ask a youth, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, it is stated in the question that they are not fully grown, and there is a gulf between the now and the future mature adult. What would the response be however, if well-meaning people stopped asking “What do you want to be when you grow up”, and started asking, “Tell me about yourself”, or “So how are you doing?” Asking someone to tell you about themselves doesn’t have to be a single scripted response like in a job interview. And subsequent open-ended questions are good techniques to draw them into a conversation.

Taking the time to find out who someone is, what makes them happiest, what fuels their enthusiasm, and of course what their existing skills, education and experience is forms a good foundation to knowing the person. It is upon a foundation then that conversations can turn to the future. So asking, “What do you want to do when you grow up” actually dismisses the present and the past, and there is an expectation in the question that it should be answered with something different from the present.

People can’t move forward really if they are content and happy with their present. Take the person in their existing job in an office. If an opening comes up for a senior position, why is it that all the people one step below that position don’t apply? The answer may have more than one simple answer, such as some who want the job aren’t fully trained in their present role yet, the educational requirements aren’t met, or it could be that some folks have the training, have the expertise, the education and the opportunity, but they fail to apply because they are happy in their current role.

This is a hard concept for some to wrap their head around if they themselves see the position as a highly coveted career, and they would apply in a second if they could realistically compete. Envy the person however who is so satisfied with their current position and how they perform in it, that they can turn down additional responsibility and income and lose no sleep over it. After all, how many times does a person get to take a step back in an organization without being labelled as an under-achiever if they realize the job they had was more fulfilling? You can be sure that the water cooler discussion would certainly be lively about someone who reverted to a job they once held.

Suppose people walked around with a sign on their forehead that said, “Happy with my present job”, “Doing demeaning work”, “Ambitious and destined for better things”, “Stuck” or “Stalled in my Career”. If this were the case it would be easier to know where you were starting from and who needed any help you might be in a position to give. Thankfully, we aren’t that transparent, but it means we have to take the time to ask the questions, probe without being pushy, and encourage people to be honest and open if they are to truly reveal where they are today so we can either just congratulate them in their happiness, or aid them moving forward.

Sometimes we are so programmed to be the helpers, we want to move others forward to places we expect and assume they want to be when in fact they have already reached either a long-awaited plateau or the destination they were striving for. It’s like we assume people are going on a lengthy quest when in fact they are just heading out to the corner store for a bag of milk. But a quest would be so much more rewarding and fulfilling! To whom?

Who you are? Who you want to be? What do you enjoy doing today? What would you like to be doing one day? Ask the right questions.

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