From Our Readers
April 17, 2015 6:00 am

If you’re in your early 20s and you had a dollar for every time that someone has asked a variation of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” you wouldn’t even have to worry about working. You’d already be loaded!

Since pre-school the world has insisted that we know what career we want to pursue, and that our career is our identity. If you’re like me, you’ve felt this pressure from your family, Barney, your career counselor, and everyone who attended your high school graduation party. But look: that’s not how life works, and our job doesn’t define our complete selves. Let’s blow this one-passion thing wide open.

I studied philosophy as an undergrad, and was dead-set on getting my PhD. Every single decision I made was in the service of getting into a PhD program. But when I was accepted into a great school, I found that I just couldn’t say yes. I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to be in academia. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Well…. crap. Now what?

I’m in my mid-20s and I’ve changed career paths three times already. I have had the chance to work with a lot of different people, hone in on what is most important to me, and know that if I change my mind again, it’s no biggie. It’s a great chance to try something new.

First things first: Don’t judge yourself for not being super psyched about a particular career. I know that it can feel like you’ve somehow failed because you haven’t figure out the thing that drives you. But that’s not a failure; it’s actually incredibly liberating. It provides the opportunity to take a look around, try things on for size, and explore a huge landscape of options.

Keeping yourself open to multiple job or career options means you’re probably a lot less likely to remain in a job that makes you unhappy, and less likely to get burned out. Options are freedom and power. If we’re open to pursuing other things, we won’t be as scared to say “see ya” to a crappy job, or take a risk on something like the Peace Corps or graduate school. Taking a more zen approach and not tying all decisions to a specific long-term goal frees us from career myopia, which will inevitably lead to frustration and discouragement.

The other thing we can reexamine in our career pursuits is the idea that our job is who we are. Who we are is in part comprised by our work (we spend a heck of a lot of time on it, after all), but there is so much more to us than what we get paid for. Think of everything we have going for us that contributes to our lives: friends, hobbies, volunteer work, travels, family.

I’ve always hated the question “what do you want to be?” when the real question is “what do you want to do for a living?” The question of what sort of person we want to be can and should also change over time, just like jobs. Boxing ourselves in, especially when there is still so much life to be lived, just doesn’t make any sense. We need the flexibility and space to grow as human beings, so let’s stop confusing our job for who we are.

And look, everyone is different. Some people know they want to be a teacher when they’re 5 and that’s exactly what they end up doing and loving it. Some of us start off as professors and 15 years later find themselves getting their license to tattoo  (I know someone who did this, and she’s amazing).

Even if you never have a single theme that drives you more than anything else, you can still kick ass, make a contribution, and learn a ton along the way. All of which is totally valuable and fulfilling in its own right! Either way it’s fine so long as you feel fulfilled, productive, and hopefully appreciated as well.

This isn’t to put down anyone who really knows what they want to do and goes at it full force. That is an awesome gift to have, and plenty of us are envious. The message for everyone is: Go for it, whatever it is. If what you want to do sounds interesting or fun or worthwhile, give it a whirl. If it doesn’t work out, on to the next! You haven’t failed because you’ve changed course, you’ve decided to learn from your experience and take a chance on something new (feel free to use that line in interviews). There are so many different routes we can take between now and retirement (oh happy day!). Take some risks. We’re going to be OK out there.

Elizabeth King is a mid-20s environmentalist, feminist, ice cream and Futurama-loving writer, and non-profit lady warrior living in Chicago, IL. She also is working to bring back the low-five. Check her out on Instagram @mr.sweatpants if you like pictures of dogs, books, and unattractive selfies.