“What do you want to be when you grow up?” When I was a kid, I loved answering this question. I’d say I wanted to be a teacher, a veterinarian, or a novelist. Adults would smile, nod in approval, and say, “Your parents must be proud.” But when I was a senior in college, this was the question I dreaded. It was a constant reminder that I had big decisions to make. I felt immense pressure to be fully in control, 100 percent certain of my goals, and in possession of a detailed, logical plan for my career path. Yet I didn’t even know where to start.
What do you want to be when you grow up? For many of us, it’s a question that never really goes away. We are continually searching for what’s next, what’s better, and what will be even more fulfilling. Even now, in a career I adore and a role that continues to challenge me, I find myself wondering, how have I landed here? And yet, what more can I do?
It’s what’s underneath this question that’s important. That is: What impact do you want to have on the world?
As a college senior, I knew I wanted to make a difference—and for me, that meant working in the nonprofit sector. The career resource staff gave me the contact information of alumni who worked in the field; beyond that, they didn’t know how to help me. Unfulfilled, I designed my own process. I pored through entry-level nonprofit job listings and assessed the ones that jumped out at me by evaluating them against a list of the qualities and qualifications I wanted to draw on in my work: youth-focused, a flair for entrepreneurship, a desire to learn on the job, an opportunity to write, and an interest in new technology.
I didn’t have the language for it then, but I was aligning what I cared about deeply with what I perceived were my best skills. I followed my own process, and, as with all worthy struggles, it took some time to see results. I didn’t find a job, in fact, until many long, harrowing months after I graduated, and that first job wasn’t exactly off the charts. The salary was terrible, and I didn’t have as much responsibility as I wanted. But I’d come to know myself quite well through my search process, as it helped me understand what I wanted out of my career: to work for an organization that merged talent identification, social change, and entrepreneurship.
So I kept looking, going on informational interviews, pushing forward, and searching for opportunities; within a year, I landed at an organization called Do Something and launched an award program that honors young community activists. It felt right for me.
Now, fifteen years later, I help lead the global nonprofit Echoing Green. We unleash next generation talent to solve the world’s biggest problems….
What social footprint do you want to make? What is your problem to own? What gifts do you have to offer to the world? What path do you want to take?
In a way, these difficult but important questions are what underlie that initial inquiry from childhood, What do you want to be when you grow up? I’ve found an answer now, and not just because I love my job. Rather, I’ve discovered that the truest answer I can give is one I share with the five Echoing Green Fellows profiled (in the Work on Purpose book), and hopefully with you, too. When I grow up, I want to be a changemaker.
Lara Galinsky is an author, speaker, expert on working on purpose, and senior vice president of Echoing Green, a groundbreaking nonprofit organization with the mission to unleash next generation talent to solve the world’s biggest problems. This blog post is an excerpt from Lara's book Work on Purpose. Order the book today.