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What do you want to be when you grow up?

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I’m going to assume that you’ve been asked this question at least a handful of times. I remember the first inquisition in preschool, again as I was deciding on my college major, and, most recently, by every human I talked to in the months leading up to my college commencement.

From prom dress to professional identity

The truth is, as a fresh high school graduate, or even as a college graduate, it’s hard to know what you “want to be when you grow up.” Heck, when I was 18 I couldn’t decide on a prom dress, let alone the professional identity I wanted to tie myself to for the next 40 years. I eventually chose to major in Communications because, quite frankly, it was the most ambiguous and open-ended option on the menu at my university. Classes in writing and marketing piqued my interest the most, so pursuing a career that married these two areas nicely seemed like the natural fit.

Heck, when I was 18 I couldn’t decide on a prom dress, let alone the professional identity I wanted to tie myself to for the next 40 years.

Take my peers, for instance. I have a friend who majored in biopsychology (brains!) with plans to go to medical school. Where is he now? On the fast track to the top at a corporate recruiting agency. My friend, who majored in Art History? A financial coordinator.

And the shift doesn’t just happen in the narrow space between graduation and job applications, people make jumps once they’re settled in jobs as well. In fact, they do it a lot. Millennials, most notably, have been known to switch it up frequently. According to Gallup, only 50 percent of Millennials say they plan on being at their current company a year from now. Often called “the job-hopping generation,” this quality is typically added to the laundry list of negative Millennial attributes. But sometimes these jumps are necessary and shouldn’t be looked upon as adversely as they are.

Keep testing the porridge until it’s just right

Roya knew one thing when she graduated from college—she wanted to work in business. But what side of business she wanted to pursue was unclear. So, she applied broadly. Applications went out for entry-level positions in marketing, public relations, and human resources. HR was the first role to bite back, so Roya jumped in.

Three years later, Roya found herself at a crossroads—she had been promoted (not once, but twice) and loved the people she worked with, but something didn’t feel quite right. Corporate America was still calling her name, but she came to realize that it was perhaps the creative side rather than the people side that was the right fit for her. And so she jumped.

Roya landed at a hyper-specialized events PR agency. And another six months later, she realized that working at a company of nine employees wasn’t right for her either. So it was back to the drawing board—this time, giving marketing a go. Roya locked down a role in marketing operations and events, a position that speaks directly to her creative side and naturally pulls from both her HR and events backgrounds. This time, she hit the nail on the head.

So let’s take a look at Roya. Millennial? Check. Job-hopper? By definition, yes, but without moving from place to place, she never would have figured out exactly what she wanted to do. Working in HR developed Roya’s business sense—she learned how to work cross-functionally with people across the company and could understand a variety of perspectives. Her public relations role showed her that both PR and startups weren’t the right match for her, but events were.

In an article about making major career changes on the aptly named blog Careershifters, one author remembers a career coach telling him, "Richard, it's like you're standing in a forest and you have a number of tracks in front of you. But you're paralyzed because you don't want to make a mistake. And the challenge is: if you don't take any of the paths, you're never going to get out of the forest. If you take one of them, it may not be the right track initially,

In other words, you never know until you know. A marketing role might sound good on paper, but how can you know what the day-to-day is actually like until you run a campaign or write your first press release? You simply can’t.

Learning and relearning

At Collision this past May, Matt Mazzeo, Managing Director, Lowercase Capital and Will Gaybrick, CFO, Stripe, discussed pursuing a nontraditional career path, one characterized by sharp turns and a bit of jumping. Both men have worn a variety of hats throughout their careers—in not only different roles, but also across industries. Mazzero started in entertainment and now works at a venture capital fund in Silicon Valley. Gabrick started his career in venture capital, then tested out engineering for a bit, then went to law school, then started his own venture fund, and now wears the title of CFO. Long story short: these guys know a thing or two about the twists and turns required to hit career gold and they recommend making shifts not only at the beginning of your career but throughout its duration.

“People pigeonhole you forever,” said Mazzero. “You need to continually showcase that there are more dimensions to your personality and skills.” In order to cultivate this breadth, he believes, we need to continuously make pivots.

However, these shifts don’t need to be as drastic as they are during early exploratory days. “You’re much better off pivoting into roles that leverage the career capital you’ve already built up over the years, and drawing upon these areas of expertise in new and creative ways,” wrote Jenny Foss for The Muse. In other words, let your skills carry you from role to role. Take Gaybrick, for example. When he moved from venture capital to his role as CFO he wasn’t completely reinventing the wheel. “I had to do a lot of learning and relearning,” said Gaybrick. “But a lot from venture side translated over to Stripe.”

Plant yourself and grow

Gaybrick is also an advocate for sticking to an industry once you find the right one. “I think there is an advantage to staying in the same industry. It took me two years to figure out where the bathroom is, make mistakes, and another two years to build up achievements,” he said.

Jumping and twisting and turning and pivoting isn’t a career no-no; in fact, a nontraditional career path can be exactly what you need to find your calling and continuously learn and challenge yourself.

Jumping and twisting and turning and pivoting isn’t a career no-no; in fact, a nontraditional career path can be exactly what you need to find your calling and continuously learn and challenge yourself.

However, different times in your career will call for different moves—some big, some small. “If you’re just the mercenary who’s jumping every two years, it’s harder to build those valuable relationships and networks,” Gaybrick said. “Finding a place where you can grow and make career progress, but also maintain those relationships is really important.”

So, don't stress too much if you don't know what you want to be when you grow up... no matter how old you are.