Some paradigms have a way of sticking around way beyond their ability to be useful, and few concepts are as useless these days as the notion that working adults should have a specific and finite work identity.
This would suggest some “core and immutable self” that would find its expression in a stable and predictable world. On both counts, nothing is further from the truth.
While we all have certain aptitudes and inclinations, and these are probably part of our DNA, most of us will keep building and evolving our work identities and our careers through our entire adult lives. Many successful leaders and professionals actually reinvent themselves professionally in their 40’s and 50’s and continue to grow and evolve way into mature adulthood.
Every time I changed careers in my own professional life, I initially thought that I had “now found my true calling” and that what I had done before was not “the real me”.
What I learned to appreciate over time was that each stage, each position, was to some extent the best expression of what I was interested in, and of what I could contribute, at that time. Each stage and each position was also connected to all the others by an invisible thread, a thread of the type one can only discern looking back from far enough to see patterns emerge.
From that perspective, no career decision was either “right” or “wrong”, although of course I was happier with some decisions than others. It was more about how certain positions, career choices and circumstances “fit” for a time, or provided something important at that stage, and then failed to fit because I had outgrown them and was ready for something else.
The triggers for change were many:
Our career evolution as adults is a social process with many interesting turns, stops, experiments and encounters. Those of us who are fortunate enough to ask ourselves these questions often have options that are unthinkable to so many in the world.
So perhaps it’s time to retire the “what I want to do when I grow up” question, and to be curious about the voice calling for the next step on what could be a very interesting journey.