GROWING OLDER BUT NOT UP: Finding Your Special Purpose


I got an email the other day from a guy who used to work in the oil and gas industry. He was seeking my advice on what to do with his career until oil prices stabilize. This person has lots of experience, a strong work ethic, and is quite intelligent and marketable; his employer held on to folks like him for as long as they could, but eventually had to lay off even their most talented workers. Like so many others who face mid-career challenges, he felt adrift. He wanted to keep his career on track, building on the knowledge and experience he’s gained through the years. Sadly, there’s simply no work in his field, and beating his head against that wall will only result in lowered self-esteem and intensified financial woes.

My counsel to him was to use his skills in another industry, or to build on skills he has from prior positions that he enjoyed. In an attempt to avoid giving the vague and often-trite “do what you love” advice we hear so often, I gave him specific suggestions, which seemed to encourage him and give him direction.

This exchange got me to thinking about all the folks I know who are looking to start a career or who are changing careers. How many times do we try to fit the future into what we (think we) know today, or what we’ve done in the past? This mindset limits our possibilities.

But when we try to expand our view, we often make feeble attempts to “do what we love” even though deep down we think it's not going to work out. Because let’s face it, sometimes there’s no market for (or no profit in) doing what we love to do, so it should remain our hobby, not our vocation.

If you’re in this situation, I’d like to offer an alternative thought process…because the answers you get are always determined by the questions you ask.

How many times has a child been asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And they answer “a fireman” or “a movie star” or sometimes both! Very few children – indeed very few college students or professionals - REALLY know what they want to do when they “grow up”. So they answer based on what they think is glamorous, honorable, or what they think they’re supposed to say.

What if the question became, “What problems do you want to solve?” Children in particular will come up with clear-minded and simple problems, and probably some very creative answers to this one! It may take mid-career folks a little longer to answer because we tend to lose our curiosity about things, to stop noticing what lights us up, or we may be jaded about what we think we can or can’t do at this point in our lives. But give it a try! Do you see how the possibilities expand when you move away from the more confining “What do you want to be?” or “What will you do next?” questions?

When you approach your situation with a problem-solving mindset, you start to feel empowered. You begin to take ownership of the knowledge, skills, and abilities you need to solve this problem. Some places to start:

• What research do you need to do? • What publications and websites should you subscribe to? • What classes can you take? Online? In school? • What books should you read? • What videos and documentaries should you watch? • Who else is interested in solving this problem? Can you collaborate with them? • Who should you follow on LinkedIn or Twitter? • What blogs should you be reading?

Once you’ve embraced the problem-solving mindset, you'll feel free to evolve instead of feeling stuck on some path you chose (or someone chose for you) when you were trying to fit into a mold. You'll begin to master the critical skills you will need to solve the problems you see, and you’ll jazzed up about them because solving them was your idea! You begin to feel your purpose. And when you begin to feel your purpose, watch out: you just may end up doing what you love!

Some ideas for this post were adapted from Jaime Casap’s “Beat the Odds” speech, July 2015. Jaime Casap is Google’s Chief Education Evangelist. And of course thanks to Jimmy Buffett for inspiring my headline, and Steve Martin ("The Jerk") for my subheadline.

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