What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

I never had a good answer to that question.

As a child, I certainly would not have said “IBM CIO” or even technology executive…because I honestly didn’t know what that was.  

I was jealous of those kids who knew, definitively, that they wanted to be an astronaut or veterinarian or teacher. They seemed to have a clarity of direction that I lacked. If only I could decide where I wanted to go, I was sure I’d be able to figure out how to get there.

For me, I look back at a pivotal summer job decision I made during college. I recall my struggle to choose between two opportunities: one to serve as a congressional aide in Washington, D.C.; the other to do research in the physics department at Oklahoma State University.

The first was the more obvious choice: a prestigious offer to assist and learn from my home state’s Congresswoman in the nation’s capital. The second option would take me 1,600 miles from home to a tiny town in Tornado Alley to work on hard physics problems. If you’ve been following along this far, you probably know which one I chose.

That summer was lonely. It was, of course, the era before the internet and cell phones. I was working for a theoretical physicist who, as it turned out, was not around much. He gave me some technical papers to read and a problem to solve: find the localization of eigenstates in wave transmission through quasi-one-dimensional disordered systems using the tight-binding model. (If that sounds like gibberish to you, it did to me too as a 20-year-old who was questioning whether I should have instead gone to Washington.)

I spent countless hours in the library and, through trial and error, began to understand the problem at hand. I remember being given little guidance or direction, but simply the time and the space to explore. When I got stuck, I headed to the OSU track, running lap after lap with headphones on and my portable CD player bouncing at my hip.

I found I liked solving problems. I enjoyed the challenge, relished learning, was okay getting outside of my comfort zone, and took pride in being able to figure things out.

Okay, so then what did I want to BE? I admit that I’ve never really figured that out.

Based on a survey of 8-12 year-olds, the most popular answers to the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question are YouTuber, teacher, and professional athlete for children in the U.S. and U.K. In China, the top three answers are astronaut, teacher, and musician.

I’ve spent nearly 24 years at one company, doing a dozen different jobs – from technical contributor to manager to leader of development, product management, strategy, operations, and IT. No two days are alike, which keeps things interesting and challenging.

It’s less common than ever that employees have a single job or work for one company their entire careers. Globally, employees in Italy have among the greatest longevity at an average of 12.2 years with a single employer. In Spain, it’s 10.0 years. In the U.K., it’s 8.0 years. And in South Korea it’s 5.9 years.

In the U.S., there is even more job hopping. Americans on average remain with one company for only 4.1 years, and for millennials, they stay for under three! Many jobs of today – blogger, social media influencer, AI engineer, cloud architect – didn’t even exist a decade ago, and no doubt new jobs will be created over the coming years that we simply can’t imagine today.

In my experience, one’s career journey is rarely a straight line. Rather, it’s often a circuitous path that builds skills, networks, and expertise while helping you learn what you love and where you excel. Careers may be diverse and multifaceted, with pivots and breaks.

Today, many professionals aren’t “retiring” in the traditional sense – and certainly not at 55 as once was the norm – but rather starting second or third “acts” – new phases of working life that may include starting companies, serving on advisory boards, pursuing passions, or giving back.

The COVID-19 pandemic launched many into reflection and reassessment. Just like any major life event – the birth of a child, the death of a parent, a marriage or divorce – it caused us to pause and rethink. Are we doing what we love? Are we fulfilled? Is this what we’re meant to do? Today, 84% of employees are seeking meaning from work, a statistic that is higher than ever before.

Joanne Lipman’s recently published book Next! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work tells the inspiring stories of many who have made dramatic career pivots. The marketing guru who became a best-selling novelist. The government employee who launched a successful culinary career. The attorney who morphed into a Tik Tok star. The professional musician who pivoted to become a world-renowned economist. The banker who transitioned into a farmer.

Some key takeaways for those looking to reinvent their life and work:

  • Take a break! This could be anything from simply taking a walk to a full sabbatical. It’s not a sign of weakness, but rather essential for unleashing new ideas.
  • “Stop fetishizing busyness.” This one hit home for me. How many times have you started a conversation with, “Crazy busy week, right?” We celebrate this – as if it’s a sign of success, evidence of hard work, and an expectation of ourselves and others. But data suggest it doesn’t have to be this way.
  • Seek help from others, including an “expert companion” – which could be a spouse, friend, or career coach. Reach out to your network – especially “weak ties,” people you may only know casually: a friend of a friend, a former colleague, your sister-in-law’s long-lost uncle.

So, if I could go back to my younger self – what would I say I want to be? A scientist? Problem solver? Executive? CIO? Blogger? Daughter? Wife? Mother? Something else entirely? All of the above?

My kids are grappling today with the question of what they want to be. My oldest, now in college, sees graduation looming and a need to figure out what that first full-time job will be. The one headed off to college is trying to pick a major when he has little understanding of the options and implications. And my youngest, still in middle school, well, he wants to be a professional sportscaster…at least for now.

And, so, I will tell them: It’s okay not to know. It will likely change. You will be many things. Enjoy the journey.

3 thoughts on “What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

  1. Right on Kathryn, as always well-researched and well-written. I think it’s very difficult to select a career at an early age because you don’t know what you don’t know. You haven’t experienced enough for most to know. That is why I have always felt it unfair to ask someone to select a major in their sophomore year in college. Most people who went to college do not practice in the area of their college degree. That is why when my son was going to college and had no idea what to select as a major, I just advised him to select something you like at the moment. The most important thing to get out of college is to learn how to learn. That will serve you best your whole life because you probably won’t be doing what your studying to be in college. ..:-) Again, I enjoy your blogs very much..!!


  2. Kathryn, such a great blog. I do believe people have a sense of their capabilities, needs and wants and are able to spur their career journeys on whichever circuitous (love this word) route they take.

    Undoubtedly people who step through our life paths grow ideas inside of us, fuel ambition and can genuinely inspire paths of direction. I recently read Inside Coca Cola – a powerful story by a CEO with many deeply passionate examples of developing a career through an immergence in culture, fostering teaming, accepting guidance, acting with respect and having an absolute love for problem solving.

    My son is finishing up high school – I loved what John Rosato said about college being a place of learning to learn, work ethic is a fundamental building block of life afterall. We set the stage for our children; their journey and adventure of life must be focused on the walking the path and not racing to the end – that is the growth dimension we all take and that is what they should understand from the get go.

    What I noted in the book was that the CEO, David Isdell studied to be a social worker and then went on to build an exceptional management career sparked by self motivation, curiosity – he drove negotiation, strategy, logistics, planning, marketing efforts – he traveĺled and worked in more countries than most – he engaged with presidents, royalty, street vendors, border controllers, janitors, truckers, manufacturers, the list goes on. He lived a life within a life in his tenure – I think that was the essence of it for me as he made moves and choices that he generally dealt himself. I could not class it as a fairytale story however his job and life were so fully integrated that it seemingly scaled needs, wants and aspirations of a person bursting with motivation and drive.

    Careers need not be in loyalty to one company but if it works, great! Skills and interests allow flexibility of choice even more than ever; the key is in harnessing ones’ best self to do what one loves. It certainly holds trickier when financial responsibilities kick in and routines hold the family fort better than not. The same is true when difficult life events ‘disrupt’ the flow.

    I like to think that both my teens can make a right start by knowing they are capable and believe they will be able to follow the signs allowing doors to open for them, knowing when the recipe is right to ‘chow down’. I am trusting that their passions and interests will draw the lighthouses in. I hope the same for yours.


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