When I was at infant school I wanted to be an astronaut.  This was in the great new age of discovery, when Armstrong and Aldrin were the new Columbus and Magellan, when suddenly the edge of the universe seemed closer than Blackpool.  I spent most of my leisure time at home moving slowly round the garden as if on a moon landscape, my duffle coat a surprisingly realistic spacesuit (I was delighted to note in The ABC of Space that astronauts wear an underhelmet that resembles a balaclava, a great help to me in the winter months).

When we were asked at the age of seven to write that essay on ‘What I Want To Be When I Grow Up’ I waxed lyrical about my future life as an astronaut.  I still have the essay.  My favourite bit is “On my way back to earth I would stop off for tea at a space station.”  Wouldn’t it be brilliant if space travel was like that, peppered with astro-eateries? (Although these days, if you wanted to smoke, you’d have to float around outside the back door.)

But times have changed.  In the 21st Century, space is no longer the final frontier, it’s a convenient back yard to put satellites and various bits of forgotten junk (look out for the Government’s ultimate solution to the dwindling number of landfill sites: just put your bin bags into a giant cannon and fire them into the troposphere.  But I digress).  And young children don’t want to be astronauts anymore, they want to be doctors or bankers or pop stars.  The options have shrunk a little.

In a way, though, the options were always shrunk by our misapprehension of the verb ‘be’.  Most of us construe the question ‘what do you want to be?’ in the same way as we respond to the question ‘what do you do?’ – as a request for a job title.  Pushed for more detail, we might consider adding a job description or list of key responsibilities.  We all practised this on behalf of our parents during our schooldays, due I suspect to a desire by primary school teachers to find out all the intimate details of their charges’ family background. 

At the age of four, my son was asked by his teacher what his father ‘did’.  “He’s a Mujunt Constant,” he replied (maybe I should have booked that hearing test).  Bemused, the teacher probed further: what did that involve?  The answer to this was simpler: “He sits around the house doing nothing, then goes away for days at a time.” Satisfied, the teacher wrote ‘alcoholic’ in her notebook and looked up the number for Social Services.

Slick self-marketeers never answer the question ‘what do you do?’ with a job description: they talk about the problems they solve and the benefits they deliver to clients.  And quite right too: it only took me 13 years to learn to stop answering the question with a sentence along the lines of “Well I sort of work in the training and development area you know peopley stuff plus I do some consultancy work around…” (at this point I would usually stop, having discovered I was now alone in the room).

When I coach clients who are re-evaluating their careers, I encourage them to take a similar approach to the question ‘what do you want to be?’  I find that the most likely reason someone can’t answer that question is because they can’t immediately think of a job title that would suit them.  As a result, they say things like “Well I suppose I should be looking for a Level 4 role (ah, promotion: hardly anybody really wants it, but it’s the only the way you know the organisation values you.).  But why should we default to a job title or hierarchical level?  Why not start with a description of those qualities you would like to have in your life, or the impact you want to make in the organisation, or what you want to be remembered for, or the benefits you can bring?  After all, with the possible exception of The Queen, few of us do a job for its title; we are attracted to a job to the extent we believe it will meet our needs. Once we know what our needs are, we can focus on what kind of role might suit them.

The other great advantage of construing your desired role in terms of the qualities you seek is that suddenly every job becomes a possible job for you.  With a little creativity and a pinch of negotiating nous, you may even be able to turn your current job into your ideal job.  Unless your ideal job is astronaut, that is.  But I’m working on it.

(c) Phil Lowe 2005.  All rights reserved