What do you want to be when you grow up?

For children, the answer to this question seems obvious: astronaut, firefighter, doctor or stewardess. Even though our parents are secretaries, car technicians, bankers, insurance salesmen or stay at home moms, as children we believe that something more exciting, fun and dangerous is out there for us. But what if our expectation of an amazing career in an exciting field doesn’t become reality?

I have to admit that I’ve been experiencing a bit of a crisis lately when it comes to my professional life. It doesn’t keep me up at night, but one question has been nagging me for a while: Is this IT? The idea that for the rest of my life this is what I have to look forward to — get up, go to work, go home, eat dinner, go to bed — is daunting.

Let me start out by saying that I like my job. It is actually related to what I studied in college (writing and business) and what I do might actually make a difference in people’s lives — even if not directly. I work for a small publishing company with people I like, the pay is not bad, I get to travel a little bit and the work itself is creative and exciting. I do learn new things from my bosses and colleagues, there is a cute puppy in the office and even my cubicle is a luxurious, large model.

But let’s be honest — what I do is not extraordinary. It is not going to change the world or heal people, and if I got hit by a bus, another 20 people with the same skills would line up in my place. And while I am committed to doing a good job, this is not my life’s passion. Does anyone grow up wanting to be a marketing and editorial coordinator?

I have to wonder: Do most people feel this way about their jobs? Is it normal to feel this way? We are taught from an early age that picking a profession is serious business — from the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question to choosing a major in college, we are encouraged to examine what we are good at, what we love to do, what our unique talents are. We are also told that if we work hard enough, we can be anything we want to be and that every little girl and boy has the opportunity to grow up to be the President.

Unfortunately, we are not told exactly how we are supposed to figure out what brings us meaning, or that the search will be slow and painful and will probably not happen for a few decades. In the end, we might not find meaning at all, no matter how hard we work. Reality sets in pretty early in our careers: No matter what your dream job might be, sometimes you just have to take a job, any job, because you have to pay bills. How do you balance that with your search for meaningful work? And how do you deal with the realization that you might never become the astronaut you’ve always dreamed of becoming? Is it naïve to believe that it’s important to find meaning in a job? Maybe we should just suck it up and deal with the fact that this is life — getting up, going to work, going home.

As you can see, I have more questions than answers. I know that I am lucky. I know plenty of people who not only have no passion for their jobs, but dread getting up in the morning and facing their idiot boss. I am certainly not one of them, but I do think a lot about what else is out there and what is the best way to find my meaning. I don’t believe that I am extraordinary at any one thing, but I think I am pretty good at many things, so finding a passion is not so obvious.

Until then, the secret might be to find the small stuff that makes every day a little more enjoyable. I am personally grateful that I don’t have to crunch numbers, for example. I enjoy petting the puppy and chatting with my cubicle-mate and sometimes when I come up with an inspired design for a postcard or see my work in print, I do get a bit of a rush.
Of course, this is where my Mom would tell me that having kids will help me find meaning — but that is for another column.

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