What do you want to be? – Studio Alto | Brand Agency Melbourne


What do you want to be when you grow up?

Andrew O'Keeffe   |   Image by Eunice Yip

How many adults do you know that still don’t know what they want to do when they grow up? My guess is a lot.

The world is more complicated than ever, and the world of work is full of endless possibilities that can appear quite daunting. Now, it’s not only at the tail end of secondary school that we need guidance on our career journey—it’s lifelong.

If you can be certain that the future will be uncertain, how on earth do you plan for it? What’s the secret to getting where you want to be in your career?

I’m always interested in how people found themselves in the line of work they do. It seems the more advanced in your career you are, the more niche or specialised it becomes, making it ever harder to explain what exactly it is that you do all day.

Who imagined that way back in high-school they would have put Cultural Intelligence Expert, User Experience Designer or Chief Risk Officer on their list of careers they are interested in? Chances are the jobs you’re doing today didn’t even exist then.


It hasn’t always been like this.

A few years ago I was sitting in my parents’ backyard having a chat with my mum and her brothers. We somehow got onto the topic of how they started work, and my uncles were talking about how in those days—country Victoria in the 50’s—it wasn’t uncommon for your dad to come down to your school, pull you out and tell you that you’ve got a job with the local brewer, butcher, baker or candlestick maker. Just like that you’d crossed the divide between education and work, probably never to look back.


Careers education

Fast-forward almost 70 years and there is now a huge emphasis on career planning, so much so that in 2018 the Victorian Government held an inquiry into career advice activities in Victorian schools.

Following that inquiry, we’ve been working with the Department of Education to test and deliver careers education transformation program into secondary schools statewide.

As part of the test phase, we went into schools and spoke to Year 9 students about their hopes, dreams and fears for their future and work. We then created a communications strategy tuned into their wants and needs, and a narrative that is relevant specifically to them.

We also tested a profiling tool to help students plan their path to a career based on their attributes and interests. I used the tool myself and it turned up some interesting insights—some that might have influenced my own career choice had I had this knowledge as a Year 9 student.

It’s probably a bit too late for me to become a mathematician, physicist or chemist as the tool suggested, however, it did get me thinking about how it’s not only through school that we need guidance on our career journey—it’s lifelong. How many adults do you know that don’t know what they want to do when they grow up?


Career as journey, not destination

The word “career” is derived from the Latin word carrus, meaning a ‘wheeled vehicle’ or a chariot in Roman times. Interestingly, the verb form of the word means to “move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way.”

Following that line of thought, if we’re getting philosophical, a career could be described as a vehicle that carries you through life, but not necessarily on a linear, predictable path. In the case of my Dad’s working life and many others of his generation who transitioned from school to apprenticeship to work and stayed in the same job for almost 50 years until retirement, this was a mostly uncomplicated, well worn journey.

However, for their kids and grandkids who have started their journey in the last decade (or two) it’s more likely that we will have more than one career in our lifetimes.

Rather than cruising off into the sunset, this journey is more like hopping from one bus to another… to another… to another…. There will likely be many stops along the way for training and re-training and different routes taken before you finally arrive at your destination.

A lifetime of transitioning careers might sound daunting and messy, but it’s also an exciting prospect—it means given the opportunity, the ability to learn, and motivation to act you can find your thing. You can take control of the wheel.

Let’s park the transport analogies there.


The certainty of change

‘Experts’ will tell you we live in a more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA for those in the know) world than the generations before. But try telling that to your parents and grandparents who lived through wars and recessions.

The truth is, we’ve never known what the future will look like.

What has always been certain is that things will change, and that humans have the ability to learn how to adapt to change. The pace of change may be faster than ever these days, but equally, so is the ability to learn quickly.

If you can be certain that the future will be uncertain, how do you plan for it?


What do you need to take control of your career?

To be successful and confident in a world of work that is constantly evolving, you need to be open to change. Here are four key factors that can help you continue to evolve, develop and navigate your career/s.

  1. The ability, opportunity and motivation to learn.
  2. Stop thinking about your title, start thinking about your skills.
  3. Constantly evolve – what are you doing now and what do you want to do next?
  4. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.


1. The ability, opportunity and motivation to learn.

First things first—you need these three assets to move past Go:

Ability to learn:
Can you read? Can you access the internet? The world is your oyster. You can learn anything, anytime, anywhere. If you have the opportunity…

Opportunity to act:
Do you have sufficient bandwidth in your life? Is it the right time? You don’t need much if you have the motivation…

Motivation to do something:
You have got to want to do it. No one else can do it for you.

If you can tick off these three then you’re well on your way — you’re in the privileged position where you can write your own ticket. There is so much opportunity.


2. Stop thinking about your title, start thinking about your skills.

At a recent career catch-up with a team member, she admitted she was having an (early) career identity crisis:

“I don’t know what to call myself, I don’t know what I want to be. But I know I like what I’m doing.”

I know how she feels – my LinkedIn profile title is something that I do only some of the time. I haven’t bothered changing it because it only marks where I’ve been, not where I’m going or what I’m able to do. Often that can’t be tied up in a nice bow.

In their New Work Order report youth organisation FYA champion enterprise skills (sometimes called soft skills) as ‘a set of skills and characteristics that enable young people to confront the challenges of change and navigate a complex future’.

Enterprise skills are transferable skills required in many jobs. They include:

  • Problem solving
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Presentation skills
  • Digital literacy
  • Financial literacy

Why wait for the future? The same thinking can be applied right now for those of us who are still young (or not so young). And fortunately, as designers we use most of these skills on a day-to-day basis.


3. Constantly evolve – what are you doing now and what do you want to do next?

Unfortunately the world of the lifetime-job is long gone for most, so we need to constantly evolve. But how? Keep it simple—pick two things:

  • The thing you are now and the thing you want to be.
  • The former you get paid for, the latter you invest in.
  • The former you teach, the latter you learn.
  • The former is your security (or safe place), the latter is your (low) risk.

This two-step approach breaks down what might seem like a big journey into manageable steps.


4. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

“And the other thing I would say is that if you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”


I think David Bowie articulated this better than I could, but we do have a similar saying in the studio when we talk about challenging ourselves:

‘Get comfortable being uncomfortable.’

Call it imposter syndrome, or faking it till you make it – if you don’t feel like you’re getting away with it, you’re probably not getting anywhere.

Once you feel comfortable being uncomfortable, soon you become confident in being uncomfortable – confident in your tools, process, experience and knowing that you will always find a way, always deliver.


A better question—what next?

I don’t think any of us will ever answer the question ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’. Our reality is a much less black-and-white, school-and-work than it was for our parents.

A better question might be ‘what do you want to do next?’.

Because given the ability and opportunity, if we have the motivation we can do (pretty much) anything.