What do you want to be when you grow up?

Who hasn’t been asked this question? Whether it came from the lips of a parent, teacher, visiting family member or family friend. We’ve all heard this question before.

From an early age we’re programmed to imagine ourselves in our chosen job.  And depending on where in life we’re at, we have different answers to the question posed. It might have been an author, architect, lead guitarist of… Or a simple response “I don’t know yet”.

The question is strange… Is there only one thing I can be for the rest of my adult life?

Most prevailing education systems tend to push us into further study of specific disciplines in our teens. While vocational paths send us off in a single direction, again at an early stage of development.

However, instead of selecting a role or discipline to aspire to, how about we assess the original question. To do this we need to build a framework to access the original question. In this way, we should reframe the question and ask ourselves  “how are you going to find out what you want to be?

Beyond our education, we throw into the mix a whole host of deep-rooted interests, drives and motivations.  All of which have their origins in our early years of development. To an extent these factors should be satisfied to ensure our working life contributes to our overall happiness.

Not to endorse the axiom, ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day again in your life’ – all work has its ups and downs – it is important however to achieve some alignment between motivation and working life. Note the use of ‘working life’, not job. Working life includes roles, responsibilities, teams, people, organisations, environment, sector, and so on…

Why aspire to a career or role?

We focus on careers and roles because we think it helps. Jobs are tangible and careers can be pursued. They have salaries which we aim for and titles that imply progression. It helps us to simplify things. But it also creates competitive spirit that sits well with a capitalist ideal.

It’s much harder to reflect on where our interests lie. And to consider the possibilities outside of these structures. Consequently we have difficulty figuring out where the alignment between our deep selves and areas of working life might be found.

It’s the reason why so many people seem to career through their working lives (no pun intended), aimlessly and uncontrolled. Yet by the same token, it is the reason why so many allow inertia to set in and prevent them from doing anything about it.

Aiming for roles, salaries and titles detracts from what is important. Thankfully external pressures are forcing us to think differently.

Work doesn’t really exist like it used to. Careers are more fluid, changeable and dynamic compared to 10 years ago. People are having to adapt. And quickly too.

How is working life changing?

Let’s put this into context. The effects of globalisation, 24-hour society, technology and the internet, automation and connectivity have all resulted in dramatic changes in working life. This has altered the relationship between people and organisations. The boundary between work and personal life has gradually eroded as employers demanded more from their people – access all hours, total commitment and cultural fit. At the other end of the deal the notion of a job for life disappeared long ago, alongside final salary pensions and generous redundancy pay-offs. Previously these formed core components of the psychological contract between organisation and individual.

The modern day psychological contract is more fluid and rather than a promise of a life-long employment, the individual-organisational relationships exist as a series of interactions between different individuals and different forms of employment across working life. Reid Hoffman refers to this as the Alliance.

Put simply, we’re changing jobs more frequently and with more ease. You only have to look at the size of the global interim or contractor market. People brand themselves more than ever before and are now creating their own work – evident in the growth of the knowledge economy and how businesses have embraced contingent workforces with skeletons of full-time staff. At the sharp end we have zero hour contracts and we are witnessing real shake-ups with regards what we used to know as the working week – just look at the current situation for junior doctors in the UK.

Finding a career was never straightforward but it was certainly more linear and tightly defined in the past. As individuals we’re now more transient, explorative, open and networked. Lateral moves and career breaks are part of the course (if you can afford to take them) and it is more common for people to have multiple careers. We’re also facing a shift towards automation, meaning the types of roles the majority of us occupy in future will look quite different to today.

An alternative plan

We must believe that by enhancing awareness, knowledge and understanding we stand a better chance of developing a fruitful and rewarding career. It’s about making sense of working life before anything else. Thinking about how we fit into work and how it fits into us.

First and foremost we should focus on understanding ourselves, before exploring or making decisions about roles or careers. We can reflect and work out what makes us tick, delve into what are we curious about, what makes us fascinated, why is it that certain things stir our thoughts or demand our attention? This is a simple way in which we equip ourselves for the future so that when big life decisions come our way, forced or unforced, we can make the most effective choices.

With greater awareness of who we are and what options we have, it is still vital that we don’t run off into the maze of working life without a map of where it might lead us, or equally without an idea of where the next junctions might be. Having a framework for a working life, formed of a number of ideas and potential career objectives, spotlights to focus on and experiences to enjoy, will ensure we have options when the next decision point is presented to us.

In parallel, we stand to prepare ourselves for a successful future if we build broad skills and capacity. Even if we don’t know what our future holds or we have loosely defined goals for working life, focusing on enhancing the way we think, relate, act or adjust will set us up to navigate our future. Gaining transferable skills and experiences, at the same time as exploring areas we are interested in or believe in will help to create a rounded mindset. Importantly too, this might including delaying or revisiting periods of formal learning and building this into the plan along the way.

Of course, we may not always have the foresight when encountering important decisions or indeed the luxury to pick and choose what we do. More often than not however, there are people around us who will have faced the same dilemmas as us through their working lives. We can surround ourselves with people who can advise us during such times and we can add a little extra to inform our decision making by engaging them and incorporating advice and feedback into our development.

What are we waiting for?

The aim of this post was to nod to the notion that we can all be more self-reliant in our planning for working life. We can do this to survive and also prosper and make sure we don’t become as reliant on specific jobs or organisations as previous generations. Building a versatile attitude and mixing expertise with generalist skills that have real world application help build a solid foundation for a strong path ahead. More than ever, we have the chance to build relationships with people all over the world with different experiences, backgrounds and ideas. We can draw on trusted advisers as sounding boards and be the same for others. We can discuss and learn about a range of subject areas or experiences.

While the complexity of the world today has made navigating working life more complicated, with it comes greater opportunities and tools to harness in order to grow and be successful. There is an abundance of content to explore, perspectives to understand and people to connect with – most of it free!

We can look ahead and be excited. Working life is different now but we can plan ahead even when we don’t quite know what the end goal looks like. In the absence of a clear and defined path, we still need to have a basic plan – a big-picture view of the kind of things we might end up doing. A plan to get to the plan, if you like.

So what might that involve?

Well, first and foremost it will involve making time to sit down and reflect about what you’re doing and where you’re going. Whether day dreaming on the tube or setting aside a day to think things through, it will be time well spent. It might also include doing some of the below.

  • Certainly it will include getting out of your comfort zone. Adopt an exploratory approach and do things you haven’t done before. Put yourself in new situations and with new people. Try your hand at lots of things and learn what you like and don’t and what you’re good at and not so good at.
  • Even better, do things that to date have filled you with fear or anxiety. Usually, things aren’t as bad as they seem. Try them, conquer them and reflect.
  • Regularly seek out new content to see what things perk your interest. Focus on broad experiences and watch when your focus narrows. There’s nothing wrong with focus, just beware of it.
  • Engage in different forms of exploration and development. There is no one-size fits all approach.
  • Try experiential learning, attend meetups or group debates, network, and watch and read about development and other peoples’ journeys.
  • Put yourself where the action is and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Test yourself and get feedback on how you can improve.
  • Strive to have open and detailed conversations about your future options and your potential. Do this with others inside and outside of your circle.
  • Get in touch with new people – explore their thoughts about how they’ve navigated working life. Discuss what you are thinking, and learn from those who’ve also followed or contemplated similar paths as you.
  • Engage with tools to explore personality and motivations. Valid and reliable psychometric tests can be helpful in exploring how our thoughts and feelings are influenced by our style and attitude.

Good luck planning.

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