What do you want to be when you grow up?
By now, you’ve been asked hundreds of times. You probably even asked a lot of kids yourself when you first met them. It is a simple question. Simple. Of course. Concise … What do you want to be when you grow up? As an adult, a smile would probably appear on your face if you were asked this ‘kid question’. But … do you know? Can you answer it?
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As an Air Force officer for nearly six years and then as CEO for more than twenty, I have asked this question of hundreds of subordinates. Of course, I can use more “adult” language, like: where do you see yourself in 10 years? What is your final job goal? Tell me about your professional plans. Now, what is your professional career? No matter how you express it, the question remains the same: what do you want to be when you grow up?
You will probably be surprised at the answer I get most easily: “I don’t know.”
So, I’ve sharpened my pen, learned from my past, and developed a whole new method to get to the bottom of this ever-important question. Once a new hire is on the job for about a month, long enough to “get the hang of it” and begin to feel comfortable in his desk chair, I approach him in his surroundings. The conversation is usually short; but friendly, non-confrontational and unofficial. After asking them about their day or their family, by the way I said, “I would like to schedule a meeting with you to discuss your career goals and how I can help you achieve them. What is your schedule like?” “
A week later, when the employee joins me in my office, I recite the script in my head that I have given him many times. I try to personalize it. So that it sounds original. Because even though it’s a very watched rerun for me, it’s usually a ‘first’ for them. So I carefully explain to them that I consider it my main duty, as CEO, to help them achieve their goals. I provide examples of the kinds of side projects, special tasks, or big responsibilities that I can assign to give you the experience to take another step towards your goal. I describe the education, training, certifications, degrees or licenses that will make you ‘look’ more professional and build your resume of the future. After laying it all out, methodically, I sit, relaxed, deep in my chair and use these specific words: So … what do you want to be when you grow up?
The answer does not come quickly; but, it comes … generally, in most cases, most of the time, the overwhelming response is … after a week to prepare and think about it, the employee presents his findings to the boss: “No I don’t know “.
Waiting for this result; however, not discouraged by my mission to always get the best out of every employee, I quietly tell them to “sit down and think about it. Let’s work on this together.” A long silence permeates the air. For me, it gets awkward. Have you ever seen the face of another human being while reflecting on their inner soul? The deepest recesses of who they are and who they want to be? I know this is a crucial moment to which I must give my full attention; but even though I may have the biggest title in the room, I’m just a front. They are in another place, deep in thought. It is difficult to give my full attention as I have nothing on the subject to contemplate. So, I fake it until they’re ready to bring me back to their thoughts. I usually try to put on my best poker face to hide that I’m really thinking about other things on my to-do list … all of this so as not to break first.
This is your moment. They must speak first. They must make a meaningful decision that guides them into the future. I’m just a sounding board. And, later, a catalyst to help them reach their goal.
Make it personal. Do your thing.
An interesting story? Maybe. But what does this mean to you? Does this article condemn a bunch of others on rock star weddings and Hollywood rehab? Or do you take it as a two-by-four backwards of the head? I would humbly recommend the latter.
You are not getting any younger. The time to decide, plan and act is now. As the old saying goes, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” So will life take you on a winding journey that ebbs like this and flows like that with you as simply a pacifist onlooker? Or will you grab life by the neck, put it against the wall and make it clear: you have professional goals, it is better that life does not get in the way of reaching them? Again, I would humbly recommend the latter.
Your mission, if you decide to accept it, is to decide first. Decide what you want to be when you grow up. Dream big. But, likewise, keep your goals grounded. If you are past your prime, or in it now, a professional sports career may have already passed you by. Similarly, determine what you are willing to put up with and how long you are willing to wait. How many steps are you willing to take along the way? For example, if a cardiac surgeon is your heart’s desire, are you willing to finish your bachelor’s degree with top honors, apply to numerous medical schools, relocate, give your entire life to study, do an internship, a residency, and a scholarship? a prospect of 10 years or more? If not, what would provide you with a similar amount of pleasure or self-satisfaction? The first step is the hardest. Decided. Find a quiet room or a panoramic gazebo to spend some time with the most difficult thing on this planet that you have ever tried to decipher: YOU!
The decision is the hardest part, but surely not the longest. In fact, it is the shortest. Once you have a goal, develop a plan to achieve it. Short being a marketing director is not enough. Do you have a degree in marketing? If not, get one. Have you worked in marketing? Start. What does your portfolio of past marketing campaigns look like? Have none? Build it.
It doesn’t really matter what your career choice is, everyone has training, experiences, awards, milestones, and resume builders. Decide which one will look the best on your resume and start piling them up. If I may, let me ask you one last time: what do you want to be when you grow up? Also, your sister question: are you willing to do whatever it takes to get there?