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What to Do If You Don’t Know What You Want to Be When You Grow Up

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Sites like Brazen may be full of great tips on how to land the job of your dreams and excel once you’ve got it, but many young people have a more fundamental problem: they have no idea what the job of their dreams is.

Those are the folks 21-year-old Spencer Thompson wants to help. Thompson is the youthful founder of Sokanu, a sort of Match.com or eHarmony for careers that asks confused career starters questions about their interests, skills and values to match them with prospective jobs, offering a 21st century update of the generally useless career counseling many young people receive in school.

In an email exchange, Brazen asked Thompson about his own career trajectory, his observations of his peers’ career struggles and what he’s learned about the mistakes many of us make in choosing the right gig. Here are his responses:

Brazen: Did you know you wanted to pursue entrepreneurship from an early age? How did you settle on being a founder?

Thompson: Growing up, I actually never even thought about being an entrepreneur. Rather, I had a fascination with science—specifically theoretical physics (weird, I know). I’m a big believer that certain things “activate” within you when you first see them. You resonate with something you know nothing about, yet you feel so closely tied to.

I felt this with physics, and it wasn’t until I was 16 that I felt it again with entrepreneurship. At that time, my mom had given me the book Think and Grow Rich. It totally changed the way I thought about the world. It is because of that book that I’m in the business world today, plain and simple.

In your experience, just how widespread and severe is the problem of essentially not knowing what you want to be when you grow up?

Besides puberty, this is probably the most widespread thing that happens to young people today. Chatting with people, the amount of pressure that exists on today’s youth is incredible. Every kid feels that pressure when they select a post-secondary school, try to get their first job, etc.

The interesting thing is that even though we know this problem exists, it is hard to introduce a solution that’s “cool” to solve it. We have seen time and time again that the right technologies spread like wildfire, but the software that has been designed for careers does exactly the opposite.

What are some of the most common mistakes young people make when trying to find a career that’s right for them?

Many people consider and pursue the career options that are shared with them by the main influencers in their life: family, friends, school and the media. The problem is that these groups will often disproportionately promote certain traditional career paths, such as doctors, teachers and lawyers.

The biggest mistake a young person can make is to limit themselves to a small selection of career paths. To know what it is that you want to do, you need to learn more about yourself. What are your skills? What are your interests? What are your values? Once young people understand this, they can discover what it is they want to be doing and explore the wealth of options that are available to them.

What about the “just stumble around” model of career discovery? Some people argue the only way to find out what we like is to try things out. How do you respond to that?

It’s absolutely important to experiment, but that doesn’t mean you’re not planning. The key is to start the process early. One of the core ideas we have at Sokanu in regards to finding your passion is the idea of “activation.” It’s the moment when you read a book or watch an interview or have a conversation with someone, and it’s as if someone has flicked a switch.

You can’t know that you’re passionate about something if you don’t know it exists, so it comes back to exploring your options and your interests early on. Once you find out what it is that lights you up, you can start pursuing it with purpose.

How about the notion that a linear career as we traditionally understand it is pretty dead and folks are now going to have to have a portfolio of jobs? Is that something you buy into, and did you design Sokanu with that perspective in mind?

The 30-year linear path still exists for a few careers, but for the most part it’s the exception, not the rule. In many ways, careers are like relationships, and most people don’t marry the first person they date. It may sometimes seem that job experiences are just “stumbling around,” but if you’re taking the time to learn from each experience and understand what it is you do and do not want from each career opportunity, then you are on the right path—it’s just more likely to be a winding road than a straight line.

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch and GigaOM, among others.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • http://emmagwillim.com/ Emma Gwillim

    Great article. It’s almost a taboo. We go to university, work hard, graduate and start climbing the career ladder … in many cases long before we know ourselves well enough to make a choice based on passion and motivation (rather than degree classifications and UCAS points). Too many people miss the opportunity to work their PASSION!

  • http://www.yepi8.org/ yepi8

    I’m not fortunate for me not to go to college, high school, I had hired and I think my life is still one employee but I think whatever, have money,and fun is

  • Pingback: Career, Undecided: What To Do When You Don't Know What to Do

  • http://www.alisonelissa.com/ Career Coach, alisonelissa.com

    I hadn’t heard of this resource before. Sounds interesting- off to check it out!

  • Lee Atherton

    I’ll be passing this resource on to my young adult children for sure! I agree with you that the pressure to decide what we want to be is far too much! Today’s world is so far different than it was even 30 years ago when it was easier to do so. The choices were much more limited – even when I was in high school 25 years ago I was still encouraged to be a secretary because that’s what women did after all. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that “I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up,” and that’s still evolving. I think it’s so important to find where our passions are, what truly excites us and interests us and explore a career from there. Asking, “what type of environment do i want to work in?”, “what type of people do I want around me?” are just a beginning to the many questions we could ask ourselves.

    I have always wondered too, how can we know what we want to do when we haven’t even discovered who we are?! I don’t think it’s ’till you’re out in the world, away from the safety net of mom, dad, home, and what you’ve been/done for 20 years before you can do that discovery.