Christians sure love to use the word discernment. And young people are often encouraged to engage in career discernment when it comes time to make big decisions about jobs and education. Discernment simply means “to judge well,” but in the Christian context, discernment adds a spiritual component to the very basic human activity of making up our minds about something. This is straight-up WWJD territory.
So. Much. Pressure.
And let’s face it, career decisions are right up there among the most important decisions we will ever make! It makes sense that we take it seriously.
But I would like to very gently suggest that the people who tell you they are in the process of career discernment are REALLY telling you that they are paralyzed, panicked, waffling, or swinging wildly between several possible options. There’s probably not much spiritual about this process except every now and then they might stop their obsessing and toss up a prayer.
I know because I have BEEN that person. I, too, have used spiritual code words to cover up how lost and adrift I felt because I didn’t want people to know just how much I was struggling.
Rediscover your inner child
If you find yourself at such a crossroads, one of the best ways I’ve learned to break through the angst and the analysis-paralysis is to take a step back (way back) and get some perspective. I think Jesus was onto something when he said, “Let the little children come to me.” Because adults are EXHAUSTING and overwhelmingly NOT FUN!
Listen, I’ve hung around church people my whole life and am familiar with 1) how seriously we approach these decisions and 2) how much pressure we put on ourselves and others to have it all figured out. So let’s lighten up and reclaim this whole career discernment thing! Starting with the question…
What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was a kid I loved two things: ice cream and lawyer shows, SPECIFICALLY reruns of Matlock and Perry Mason. Therefore, it was probably natural that two of my (many) career aspirations centered around 1) owning an ice cream shop or 2) becoming a lawyer. Did I become either of these things? Nope! Sure didn’t. But it’s fascinating how our childhood dreams can shed light on the career discernment process once we become adults.
Right now my oldest child (13) wants to own a baseball card store, although I suspect what he really wants is to figure out how to get paid to open packs of baseball cards on YouTube…because it’s 2019 and apparently this is a legitimate career option. My middle child (11) is interested in playing for the NBA and the MLB and selling insurance with his dad in the off-season (not sure which off-season, however). My daughter (8) wants to be a baker or work at a vet’s office.
All of these are things they’ve encountered in their day-to-day lives; either on TV, the internet, in school, in a book, or because of a family member. That’s why most kids want to be a professional athlete, superhero, WWE superstar, teacher, nurse, or a coach. Most kids don’t dream of becoming an actuary. Your career imagination is limited by what you see.
Clearly, we have to look at our childhood dream careers with a grain of salt. However, before you discount your childhood desire to be Superman, ask yourself what it was about Superman that was so appealing. The ability to fly? To protect others? Now THOSE are some clues that can get you somewhere.
Career discernment through childhood aspirations
did some very scientific
research asked people on Facebook about what they, as kids, wanted to be
when they grew up. Here are some of the responses:
- Stay-at-home mom
- Astronaut/Crossing Guard/Choir Director
- International News Reporter
- Baseball player/Cowboy
- Psychologist/Make-up Artist/Accountant/Orthodontist/Astronaut
- Dolphin Trainer
I also asked those same people on Facebook to identify what occupation they ended up in (adult occupation/s in bold)
- Nurse >> Nurse, Nurse Practitioner
- Teacher >> Special Ed. Teacher
- Paleontologist >> Paralegal, Office Manager
- Stay-at-Home-Mom >> Teacher, Stay-at-Home-Mom
- Astronaut/Crossing Guard/Choir Director >> Middle School Art Teacher
- International News Reporter >> Occupational Therapist, Stay-at-Home-Mom
- Veterinarian >> ER Nurse, Nurse Practitioner
- Baseball player/Cowboy >> Accountant
- Landscaper >> Teacher, Landscaping (in retirement)
- Pediatrician >> Speech Pathologist
- Farmer >> Director of an IT Department
- Psychologist/Make-up Artist/Accountant/Orthodontist/Astronaut >> High School Spanish Teacher
- Teacher >> Oil Rigger, HVAC/R
- Dolphin Trainer >> Mechanic, Stay-at-Home-Homeschooling-Mom
I think it’s pretty well established that it’s nature and nurture that forms who we are as individuals. But as a personality type practitioner, my observation is that there is usually some connection between the childhood dream and the grown-up reality. Furthermore, the most obvious connection between then and now is YOU!
It’s not like you got a brain transplant once you reached maturity. You are (hopefully) just a more evolved version of that starry-eyed kid who believed anything was possible.
Don’t shrug off those childhood dreams! Our natural gifts, interests, and abilities can show up early!
The problem with career discernment
Like many young people beginning college, I was all over the place. It was super difficult for me to come to any sort of decision about choosing a major or selecting a career path. That feeling of being adrift has emerged at different times throughout my life (which, by the way, is a totally NORMAL part of the process of adult development and maturation).
Even the phrase, “career discernment” intimidates some people (me, for example). For one, it makes any decision seem really final. Like, once it’s DISCERNED there’s no changing it! There’s one thing you’re going to do with the rest of your life and if you get it wrong, you’re destined for a lifetime of misery.
Moreover, if you haven’t figured “it” out by whatever arbitrary timeline you’ve created then you’re obviously a bad Christian.
Young adults (and even not-so-young-adults) who sincerely care about their faith are often prone to over-spiritualizing every decision (large and small) when it comes to deciding on a career path. It’s hard for ANYONE to make these big decisions, but once you throw the whole “what’s God’s will for my life?” question into the mix, folks are likely to get that deer-in-the-headlights look.
Career discernment in hindsight
A few years ago I was in much the same place. But, when I allowed myself to step back in time and think back to my childhood dream, I was able to see myself in a different light.
I realized that what drew me to Perry Mason and Matlock reveals something about my truest self that has been there all along. In each of those shows, the lawyers were advocates for the wrongly accused AND sent the guilty parties to jail—often with a satisfyingly dramatic confession from the witness stand!
I’m not sure how many 10-year-olds in 1988 were riveted by black-and-white Perry Mason reruns but I’m guessing not very many. I think I had started to see how I could use my insight into human nature and desire for justice in a practical way.
Personality + Values
It’s weird how this eluded me for so long, but now it’s so easy to see the thread of advocacy woven through my various roles over the years. Law WAS a serious consideration for me, but I wasn’t sure that it would lead to the outcomes I wanted to achieve. After all, I was raised in a peace church and have always been uncomfortable with conflict.
Basically, I wanted to be an advocate without being adversarial. Thus, my focus turned from law to mediation. So, instead of heading to law school after undergrad to become the next Perry Mason, I pursued a master’s degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
Our natural, hard-wired gifts and personality are ALWAYS informed by our context: such as our faith, values, and life experiences.
Here some of the roles where I have worked to advocate and provide support for others:
- Mediator in a Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program. It was my job to advocate for victims, offenders, and the principles of restorative justice.
- Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). Hello, advocate, is right in the name. For several years I volunteered as a CASA to advocate for the best interest of a child who had been removed from the home.
- Personnel Counselor at a faith-based mission and service agency. I interview and help place youth, young adults, and senior citizens who are advocating for a peaceful, more just world. I get to advocate for the advocators! How much fun is that????
- Career Coach This is the most recent expression of my identity as an advocate. The highest contribution I can make right now is to work side-by-side with people as a cheerleader and a challenger in their academic, personal, and professional development.
Here is the truth. Whether I’m getting paid for it or not, I’m going to show up in whatever role I’m in as an advocate. If I had landed in sales, or as a dolphin trainer, or an ice-cream shop owner, I would have found ways to be an advocate.
Career connections: past and present
Using the “What did you want to be when you grew up?” question is a natural entry point into the career discernment process. It takes us back to the time when anything was possible- before someone told us that we weren’t smart enough, talented enough, or whatever enough to make it. Before there were bills to pay and people counting on us.
Back to my list from Facebook, I’m curious about the threads that connect each person’s “dream career” as a child to their adult reality. The aspiring astronaut/crossing guard/choir director? She may not be exploring outer space, but she works in a MIDDLE SCHOOL of all places. She’s surrounded by alien life on a daily basis! (ba dum ching!) In all seriousness, maybe the connection is each of those roles requires confidence and comfort in a leadership position.
The kid who wanted to be teacher who ended up on the oil rig? He’s been tasked with training up new employees both on the rig and in his current HVAC career. There are many ways to be an educator that don’t involve a classroom.
And let’s not overlook the people who DID end up in their childhood dream job! According to the chart below, roughly 20% of people DO become what they wanted to be as kids. And this does give them an edge in career satisfaction. (To that 20% I say good for you, but PLEASE stop being smug about it! It’s annoying.)
Career Discernment Lightens Up
I also look at that list from Facebook and wonder how many of these folks are happy in their careers. A sad fact of life is that sometimes people end up on a career track or in a job and they’re not really sure how they got there. As Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
If that’s you, let’s have some FUN with your career discernment:
- What did you love as a child? What were your passions, hobbies, and things that just totally lit you up? Write them down- or better yet, leave it in the comments section!
- Have those dreams gone underground, or have they emerged in some other way?
- Looking at where you are on your career journey, find the connections between those early passions and what roles and tasks you are responsible for right now. What personality strengths have shown up in your life over and over?
- What is one thing you could do in the next WEEK, MONTH, or YEAR to reconnect you to your earliest dreams and aspirations?
- Picture the young person that you once were- what could you do to make that kid proud of you today?
Newsflash: You’re Still Growing Up
The good news is that it’s never too early and it’s never too late to explore some of those early interests in life- even if it’s just through your hobby or a mission trip or a volunteering in your community. And for some people, MAYBE those childhood dreams are pointing you directly to the next step on your career journey.
And MAYBE this is why I’m suddenly craving ice cream???? Hey. It could still happen! Perhaps I will just “explore that interest” for the time being by dipping myself a nice, big bowl of Rocky Road. You know, for research. It’s career discernment people!!
P.S. And, by the way, if you find yourself in a place of uncertainty, discontent, or stagnation, there are people (like me!) who can help you with that! A career coach is a neutral, supportive presence who can help you 1) identify your strengths and values 2) create clarity about your next career step 3) explore different options and 4) provide accountability to help you achieve the goals you set for yourself. Check out my coaching page to see if I can help you!