One of the most common questions children often hear is, What do you want to be when you grow up?  A child who grew up in a family of doctors or lawyers might say, “I want to be a doctor like my dad.”  The environment you were exposed to growing up greatly influences your career choices.

Although childhood experiences have a lot to do with your career preference, your passion also matters a lot.  Today,  we  hear  from  all  directions  that  we  should  be  “following  our  passions”  when  we  design  a  career.  However,   it’s  a  very  small  percentage of us who ever do that. Why?

We determine our careers based on the survival strategies we developed as children. For example, if we learned that being seen and not heard was a safe way to navigate our childhood household, odds are  that  we’d  opt  to  work  in  accounting  rather  than  as  a  public  speaker.  The daughter who spent most of her childhood trying to cheer up her depressed mother might become a stand – up comic, a psychologist, or a caregiver. The boy who was the go – between keeping peace amongst his siblings might be drawn to diplomacy, negotiations, or tight rope walking!  We also choose careers by the parental and cultural messages we absorbed as children.

To survive as children, we learned to look externally for feedback about what we should do or not do — especially in what to do or not do to make a living – rather than internally. We learn these lessons well and they are stuffed into our unconscious. Years later, as we try to figure out what career paths to take, these learnings push us toward certain occupations and away from others.

For example, even the most well intentioned parents prefer that their  children  be  “safe.”  Some  parents  emphasize  safety  so  thoroughly  that  the  lesson  learned  is  “Safe  is  good.  Risk  is  bad.”  In  this  case,  any  occupation  that  doesn’t  have  100%  job  security  (which, by the way, has been proven anoxymoron) with pension plans and guaranteed raises and promotions will never be considered. Other parents may highly value artistic endeavors, showing extraordinary support and appreciation for your Crayola creations or violin recitals. If that were the main source of your approval, no matter where your talents lay, you would probably feel more inclined to pursue the artistic life rather than a career in engineering.  

Cultural messages also get in the mix to confuse us about the career path we should take. Generally, our culture seems to value professions that require extensive education (attorney, doctor, computer programmer, CPA) and not value careers that emphasize physical labor (contractor, gardener, house cleaner).

Within our overall culture are sub – cultures that have their own particular messages. For example, generally in western culture, being a doctor is seen as more prestigious than being a motorcycle mechanic. But within certain neighborhoods, if you say  you  want  to  be  a  doctor,  you’d  be  an  outcast  who  is   considered too hoity – toity and full of yourself. In that same sub – culture,  you’d  be  applauded  and respected as a mechanic. In certain sub – sectors of our culture, you will be maligned for becoming  a  stay  at  home  mother;  in  others  you’d  be  criticized  for   being a mother who works outside the home.

As children, we absorb (and sometimes misinterpret) all of these messages. As we begin to think about what our career path should be, these unconscious messages filter through various options  and  come  up  with  a  decision.  Or  maybe,  we  don’t  even  have the luxury of giving it any thought at all – we need to grab the  first  job  available  just  to  survive.  But  even  in  this  “grabbing,”  what we end up doing has been colored by our childhood survival strategies and parental and cultural messages.

Trouble is that by the time we reach about forty, these motivations become thin. We feel dissatisfied and dead inside.

But beyond making the wrong choice in career, we can also block flourishing in a career by our misunderstandings or misuse of the basic principles. The point is to learn the difference between what others want for you and what you truly want for yourself.