Laura Berlinsky-Schine

When children ask, “What should I be when I grow up?” they’re still at a time of life when the possibilities feel infinite. They probably haven’t developed specific passions, unless they’re the lucky few who stay on the same path from elementary school onward, and due to the breadth of children’s imaginations, their career options aren’t necessarily grounded in reality—nor do they need to be.

But as an adult, it may be a little harder to answer that question for yourself. Whether you’re a student, a recent graduate, looking to make a career change, or re-entering the workforce, here are five steps you can to take to figure out how to answer that age-old question for yourself. 

1. Determine what your dream job is.

Start by making a list of your passions. You don’t need to be practical here. Maybe you love playing a particular sport or acting on the stage. While it may be difficult to find a job where you’re solely focusing on those particular talents, since the markets are very competitive in those fields, listing out the activities that bring you the most joy will help you visualize your ideal position.

Don’t immediately dismiss your dreams as unrealistic. Lots of people do have those careers, which means they’re not impossible to attain. Even if you don’t end up in Hollywood, you can still find a career path that combines qualities of the work that you enjoy.

2. Make a list of your “practical” skills.

You don’t need to know fancy programs or be a hardware expert to find a good job. Chances are, you have many qualities employers appreciate. Make a list of your top skills. Are you an exceptionally quick reader? Write it down. Can you spot a typo from a mile away? Congratulations, because you’re great at proofreading.

3. Put the lists together.

The hope is that you can line up your “practical skills” with your passions and dream jobs to find a position that combines both. Let’s say your dream is to be a novelist. If you’ve listed proofreading and quick reading as skills, you might have a future as an editor. 

You may need to do a little googling to find out what careers that combine your passions and skills exist. But rest assured—they’re out there. Start by googling your top passions along with your practical skills, and you’re likely to come up with plenty of results.

When you do find positions that interest you, check to see if you meet the requirements for work of this nature. Do you need a specific degree or certifications? Figuring out your career goals could help you determine if you need any further education or training.

4. Take career tests. 

If you’re at a loss for where to start, you’re not alone. Career aptitude tests exist to help you figure out what jobs might be suitable for you. There are many different types that gauge various measures of career success, such as talents, personality types, and career matching. 

There are many free tests online that can serve as a starting point. But if you feel like you’re really struggling, it’s worth discussing your options with a career counselor or sitting down for a more formal assessment.

5. Talk to a mentor.

Someone close to you who’s familiar with your work is another excellent resource to help you figure out your aspirations. Reach out to a current or former teacher or professor, friend, family member, or anyone knows you well enough to give you career advice. This is also great practice for networking, which can help you enormously when you’re looking for a job. These people might see qualities in you that you never even recognized yourself. They might also know of positions you didn’t realize existed. Discussing ideas with as many people as possible can help you develop goals and solidify your ambitions.

Remember: It’s normal to feel unsure about your future. Everybody feels uncertain at some point—often many points—in their lives. It’s also important to keep in mind that you’ll have setbacks, but you will come out the other side. Finally, never feel like you’re too old to realize your goals, because many, many successful people have struggled or discovered their passions later in life.