So, seriously, what do you want to be when you grow up?
You were sweating it out the last semester of college, trembling every time that question came from your mom, a cousin, your sister's boyfriend's roommate's brother-in-law: "So ... what are you going to do?"
Then you finally pulled the resume together and landed a job with decent benefits. Phew -- that's over, right?
Nope. Because now, a few years later, you suddenly realize that's all you have -- a job with decent benefits (maybe). Your perspective is a little different -- you want more than a quick answer to "Where do you work?" You want a career rather than a job. And -- gasp! -- you want to love it. You hear there's more to working than just getting a paycheck every two weeks. You can actually do something that you enjoy and make money doing it.
And so the question arises again: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Building Blocks of Experience
Sometimes sitting in a job that isn't the right fit seems like a complete waste of time. It doesn't have to be. You can learn from your surroundings.
When Betty Fisher, a 24-year-old architect who works in New York City, graduated two years ago from Smith College, she didn't know what to do. She was better off than many liberal arts majors -- she had a degree in architecture. But she didn't have her master's and wasn't sure she could land a job at a firm without one. The only thing she was sure of was that she didn't want to head straight to grad school.
Groping for direction, she applied to consulting firms and investment banks.
In the midst of sifting through job offers, though, she did land a job at an architecture firm.
"I think a lot of it was [that] I moved to New York, and friends were investment bankers making a lot more money. So I wondered if this is what I wanted to be doing," said Fisher. She got offers from investment banks, but turned them down. "It just didn't seem right for me. Architecture is something creative -- I would have gone from black to white."
Fisher still doesn't know what she wants to do -- go to grad school, try something completely different, find another job. But she has figured out that whatever she does, she can use her time at the architecture firm as background. "There are still things I would love to do. Now I'm sure I'd want to incorporate these last few years into what I'm going to do next instead of starting all over."
And don't stress if it takes you a while to figure that out: As Beverly Kaye, president of Los Angeles-based Career Systems International, said, you may have several jobs "before you find your passion."
Figure Out Your Dream
Sometimes the hardest thing to figure out is you.
That's why many of us end up in the wrong jobs. You have to figure yourself out before you can tell what you should be doing, and where. But you do need to remember to follow your dream and do what you love -- whatever it may be.
A lot of folks about to enter the workplace for the first time just want a job. "They never did the prep work on setting goals and figuring out what they want to do," said Ron Krannich, publisher and author of "Change Your Job, Change Your Life."
So you took that job that wasn't really you. That's okay, he said. "Now you have a little of that work experience. Now you know what you don't want to do."
The most important thing is to figure out what you're all about. Before getting the resume together again and just jumping into another job, do a self-assessment. You might even want to get some professional help from a career coach, he said.
Lynn Berger, a career coach in New York City, also said self-assessment is imperative to finding your dream job. "You need to find out what your values are, your temperament, motivations," she said. "It's very hard to do on your own. Often you will need someone objective."
Krannich suggested hitting the community college near you to take a Meyers Briggs personality test. There is usually someone on hand, he said, who can help the test-taker interpret the results.
"If you really do this thorough assessment, then you can go out and explore different job and career options," he said.
Kaye suggested keeping a journal of workplace experiences, each day entering what you liked and what you loathed. "Eventually you'll look back on that journal and see a thread," she said. "You'll find a nugget of something that turns you on. It's a great hint for what you want to do."
The Schmooze Factor
By doing the self-assessment, "everything will unfold beautifully," said Krannich. And by finding yourself, you can focus on what you need to do to find the right job.
That sometimes takes patience and a plan. Krannich said he hears from job seekers who get frustrated after four or five weeks of searching. "Then I ask them, `Well, how many phone calls did you make?'" he said. It takes time to network. Ask questions, find out how others got to where they are, what they love, what they hate and how they would have done things differently.
While you're finding yourself, make calls, make contacts, investigate job possibilities.
"Some people need to make a structure," Krannich said. "Promise yourself that today you're going to make 10 calls."
Berger suggests that you take trial runs on things that you may be interested in doing. Before you jump into grad school for social work, for instance, try volunteering to see if that sort of career is for you.
Initiate conversations, even with strangers, said Kaye. "Stop, look and listen," she said. "Look at what everyone else is doing. Listen to conversations wherever you are -- ask the person sitting next to you at the airport."
When you find the right job, you'll know, Kaye said. "It's like falling in love. You'll just know that `this is right for me.'" And she's speaking from experience: She was an elementary school teacher and then a college dean before she found her own working love as a career counselor and author.
If you have questions about getting ahead, you can e-mail Amy Joyce at firstname.lastname@example.org