Why you already know what you should be doing next


Do you want to know what you should do right now? Do you want to know what your best bet is for your next career? Look at what you were doing when you were a kid. Nothing changes when you grow up except that you get clouded vision from thinking about what you SHOULD do — to be rich, or successful, or to please your parents or peers — the possibilities for should are endless.

When I was a kid, my brother and I went to Hebrew school every Tuesday and Thursday. It didn’t take me long to realize that the classes were absurd. Parents didn’t make you do your homework, and teachers just kept teaching the same thing week after week. At some point I realized that all kids would get bar or bat mitzvahs as long as we showed up on a regular basis. So I stopped paying attention.

Except for the best class ever. That was the class when my teacher told us to close our books and she described her time in Auschwitz. She talked in a thicker German accent than usual. And she showed us the number the Nazis tattooed on her arm. I remember every second of her story.

The second best day of Hebrew school was when I convinced my younger brother to ditch with me. I had to sell him on the idea: First that we wouldn’t get caught. (I had a plan to be back in time so that we could walk to the parking lot with the other kids.)  Second I had to convince him that we would have a good time.  (I brought money to buy ice cream at the store five blocks away.)

He was really not happy about the idea. He kept telling me that it wasn’t so bad to go to Hebrew school and that it was over in an hour, and in that one hour you could ask to go to the bathroom two times.

I prevailed.

This is what’s true about me in my Hebrew school story:

I have no patience for group learning.

I love a good story.

I enjoy trying to convince people to see things my way.

I’m a risk taker.

And all those things are true of me today, as well. That’s why I think that you can figure out who you are and what you should be doing by telling yourself the stories of your childhood. In fact, in almost every story I can think of, I’m trying to convince someone to do things my way.

Here’s another thing you can do to figure out what you should do with your life: Close your eyes and think of a great memory of childhood… Do you have it?

In my own, haphazard studies of this test, you can always learn something from the moment you pick. The first time I did this exercise, I thought of playing in my grandparents’ huge front yard. Of course, I was telling all my younger cousins what to do. Probably telling them why croquet was a great idea and I was going first. Something like that. But the bigger thing I learn from the story is that I am connected to space and nature and running around. All still true for me now, but it took me years of living in big cities before I could figure that out.

It’s nearly impossible to eradicate our life of SHOULDS, because we all want to make the right decisions. But I think I could have figured out right decisions for me a lot faster if I had realized how much we reveal about our true selves when we’re young.

62 replies
  1. Dan Schawbel
    Dan Schawbel says:

    It’s great to hear you are Jewish because I am as well. I didn’t know Trunk was a Jewish last name. When I hear “goldberg” or “stein” I think Jews, but not “Schawbel” or “Trunk.”

    I think we all need to stop listening to everyone else for a second and pay attention to what we are truly passionate about. Our personal brand is who we are, as well as what others think about us. It’s great to have feedback from parents, teachers, etc, but what’s really important is that they match up to who we are. If they don’t, then it will only harm us in the long-run.

  2. Karl Staib - Your Work Happiness Matters
    Karl Staib - Your Work Happiness Matters says:

    When I was young I would always come up with better ways to do things. I remember convincing my neighbor to cross our creek and catch the school bus on the other side of the road because it would shave off 20 minutes from our bus ride. Of course it didn’t work very well, wet feet and pants wrecked our mornings, but it was worth it.

    That’s why I created my current site. There are always better ways to work. We just have to learn to be creative and keep on trying new ways. Even when we make mistakes it’s okay. These mistakes show us that we aren’t afraid to try?

  3. david rees
    david rees says:

    When I was a little kid, I read every single book at the library on espionage because I wanted to be James Bond.

    I grew up to be just like James Bond.

    Minus the Aston Martin, gadgetry, license to kill, exotic women, extensive travel and PPK.

  4. Joselle Palacios
    Joselle Palacios says:

    Hey Da, you might want to check this post out for more on PT’s name: http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2007/03/05/my-name-is-not-really-penelope/

    This is an awesome post.

    When I was young, I was a big pretender. I had 10 different stories going on in my head and I was always talking to myself and play acting. I was shy and quiet when around new people but very quickly, I turned talkative and bossy. I also enjoyed convincing people to do and see things my way. I was attracted to friends who had big personalities, who also would lead me. There was often conflict but these were the people I wanted to be friends with the most.

    I also enjoyed writing but I only like writing stuff that I could really envision in my head and eventually act out. I enjoyed reading and quiet time as well as running around outside and riding my bike nowhere all by myself.

    What I think that tells me is, I’m introverted and need a lot of personal space but I also need to be a creator and around a lot of vivid personalities. I need my responsibilities to change regularly. I like to juggle a lot of balls at once and cannot be chained to a desk. Which is, unfortunately, what I am now.

    This is such a good exercise. I always love these simple, powerful exercise you offer.

  5. Coach Phil
    Coach Phil says:

    I love reading your articles and how you relate them to your own life story. Nothing is better than reminicing the Hebrew school days!

  6. Barb Moran
    Barb Moran says:

    Wow, what great timing for this post. I am going through majoy life changes right now and I am contemplating what I should do next….I already do think I know what is next, I just need to get the courage to do it…thanks!

  7. mamaworker
    mamaworker says:

    Joselle, you sound like me. I would give anything to get up from my desk and move around!

  8. Mat
    Mat says:

    Simple but sound advice Penelope. I agree that, in general, what made one happy as a child is what makes one happy as an adult.

    When I was a kid I loved travel, shopping, and being creative. I’m currently a buyer for a catalog and ecommerce company, and I couldn’t love what I do more.

  9. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    My parents bought a set of encyclopedias (Grolier – The Book of Knowledge(about 26 books), the Book of Popular Science, and Lands and Peoples) and put them in my bedroom. I’m not sure why – maybe they just wanted to make sure I got an education if school wasn’t enough. I used these books to do research for my homework. Then I found myself reading them just because I found them so interesting. I would even take them to bed at times and read them with a flashlight. It’s not as though I didn’t do anything else since I did play baseball, basketball, and football with the other kids in the neighborhood. It’s just that I remember those books to this day and now I have my computer in the same room. I’m looking at the corner right now where those books were and that’s where I have my printer and scanner. I don’t have those books anymore and my parents have passed away. I know this sounds really sad but the fact is that nothing is forever and I have great memories of my childhood. Also the Internet has radically broadened my perspective of the world and the people in it. Not only that but the Internet provides communication and feedback as evidenced by this blog. So you see I am still a sponge for knowledge. It’s just the medium that has changed.

  10. Alice Bachini-Smith
    Alice Bachini-Smith says:

    Great post! Your suggestions are really personally satisfying and fascinsating method for getting new ideas.

    Also, looking at my own kids, it seems extremely clear to me that they are born with their personalities, even if they pick up some things from their environment and family etc. And when stuff is innate, it’s not going to change. For instance, my daughter is a competititve swimmer- I can’t swim at all, nobody else in our family is even slightly sporty as far as I know.

    Off to do your exercises then see if any of the results match up with my latest few career urges! cool

  11. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    My daughter is always looking for ways to get out of Hebrew school…I better not show her this post.

    I totally agree with this, but the hard part is figuring out how to translate what you learn about your true self into a job description and then figuring out how to get that job. For instance, a theme throughout my childhood and teen years was succeeding (school, sports, etc) by doing as little work as possible. Or, that is, doing only the stuff I liked and ignoring the rest. And actually, now that I think about it, it’s worked pretty well for me as an adult too.

  12. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    This is a great post, and not just because it resonates with me.

    I always hated being stuck indoors. Okay, so I wanted to be a cowboy and that’s not what I ended up doing. But I ended up — finally — as a geologist, and now I get to spend lots of time outdoors.

    It’s too bad I didn’t pay attention to my youth, though. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry and spent years in windowless labs and cube farms. Twenty-plus years after getting my B.S., I went back to school, studied geochemistry, and finally got out of the dungeons and into the world.

    (It’s also too bad your blog wasn’t around in 1964. I might have saved myself a long career detour.)

  13. Andrea >> Become a consultant
    Andrea >> Become a consultant says:

    I franchised my Kool Aid stand and got the other kids to hand over half their revenues. I provided their supplies and gave them a loan so they could start up (like 50 cents). When a rogue lemonade stand emerged, I countered by including free candy (from my stash of 8-month-old Halloween candy). It was a small scale operation, but it was a sign of things to come.

  14. Chris Gammell
    Chris Gammell says:

    I find the word SHOULD to be very interesting, especially in this context. In fact, I have been reading about it in “How to keep people from pushing your buttons” (a great read). But the fascinating thing is how we are raised being told we should be this, or should do that, or shouldn’t say this. And in the end, there is no “should”, only “want to” and “decide to”.

    I was a kid who enjoyed my legos and my tinker toys. Today, I’m an engineer, and I think this is where I’m supposed to be. Who knows though, maybe one day I’ll have a repressed memory of me singing in front of thousands and decide to be a rock star :)

    Nice post, I enjoyed it.

  15. Aubrey
    Aubrey says:

    Loved this post, and think there’s a lot of truth in it, generally. Though I’m not sure what it’s telling me specifically. I loved creative writing when I was a kid. Stories, journals, but mostly poetry. I’d spend hours with my parents’ record collection falling in love with the lyrics, and how they moved me, then trying to accomplish the same thing with my own poetry. I considered majoring in English in college, but wasn’t impressed enough with my own talent to think I had a shot at making a career out of it. It’s such a competitive field that you really have to be a shining star. I don’t regret that decision, because I can still write as a hobby. I went into a technical field instead. I didn’t fall completely away from my inborn personality with that move, because I loved tinkering around on the computer as a kid, too. I’d probably have more fun if my job included an outlet for creative expression, but I’d also have a much tougher road to hoe achieving the level of financial security I desire.

  16. Maureen Sharib
    Maureen Sharib says:

    I realized this when I was about 42 when I stumbled into what I am doing today. The following is an excerpt from one of the lessons in Module I of my MagicMethod telephone names sourcing learning series. The lesson is called “How I Became a Names Sourcer.” If you want the whole lesson, send me an email at maureen at namesourcer.com

    "The road to happiness lies in two simple principles: find what it is that interests you and that you can do well, and when you find it, put your whole soul into it – every bit of energy and ambition and natural ability you have." ~ John D. Rockefeller III

    “…but I need to tell you what I loved about it. The first time I looked at my research document and I picked up the telephone, and obtained a name! – I was reminded how, when I was a child, my brother and I would visit a relative's farm. The relative had a pond or a creek – I can't remember exactly – I was so young! – with ducks and the ducks would build nests along the water's edge and my brother and I would look for the nests (they were usually very well-hidden!) and find them. I remembered that feeling of excitement I felt as a kid finding those nests with their eggs. Finding names gave me the same flush of pleasure, the same rush of excitement – I couldn't believe it! I was in egg heaven, and still am!”

    “It may sound kind of dumb to some of you but it makes perfect sense to me. I'm a kid again when I do what I do – €“ I have so much fun! Think about something you LOVED to do as a kid – €“ remember that fun, hope and joy it raised in you as a child, transfer it to a work activity today and you'll feel that passion John D. hints at above. Besides, the money follows and that makes it even more fun!”

  17. Shelley
    Shelley says:

    What an interesting and engaging post!

    As an academic matchmaker (college counselor) in a high school setting, I spend a lot of time sitting with students and trying to see things from their perspective.

    After reading this, I am going to be working harder than ever to tone down some of the “shoulds” in their heads. Thank you.

    PS: @Barb, go for it! Gather together a little hand-picked group of clear-eyed cheerleaders who believe in you.

    And @Maggie, what does the theme of what you were drawn TOWARDS (rather than what you were trying to get out of) look like?

  18. Mike Brown
    Mike Brown says:

    One career exercise I picked up from somewhere is this: Picture yourself at 8 or 10 years old. You’re at a big dinner table with lots of family members all the way around. Someone asks you what you want to be when you grow up. You say what your 8-year-old self would have said.

    Now: What’s the reaction of your family members around the table? Do they laugh at you? Or do they encourage you?

    When I ran this thought-experiment, my younger self said “Draw comic books” and I imagined lots of laughing and “You think you’ll make a living doing that?” comments. Kind of explains to me why I totally flunked computer science.

    I now think of my job (tech writing, but trying to break out of that) as storytelling, with maybe entertainment, excitement, color, etc. And i should probably create a mini-comic sometime, just to do it.

  19. Robyn
    Robyn says:

    I knew when I read this that you would get some great comments! Way to engage!

    When my sister and I were little, we often played detective or spy and Sherlock Holmes was my favourite read. What I’ve gotten out of that is not that I should be a policeman, but that I like solving puzzles and getting to the bottom of things. It is definitely still who I am today.

  20. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    Shelley–that’s why this exercise is hard for me. I mostly remembered that I didn’t really like being around people, liked to read, and liked to be good at things without any effort. I also loved babies and kids and thought I’d want to be a teacher…but as soon as I had my own I decided I only like my own kids and would never want to take care of or teach anyone elses ;) And I don’t like to sit still. So basically sitting at a desk all day, working in an office with people, would seem to be my worst job choice. Guess I’m out of luck for now!

  21. SAB
    SAB says:

    This was an awesome post. When I was little, I liked to compete, I liked to laugh, and I didn’t like authority. And I also was drawn to strong personalities and opinionated people. I think you’re so right that none of that changes.

    I was kind of a know-it-all and very analytical, and those traits fit in well with my future profession as a pharmacist. The other traits? Hmmm, not so much!

  22. (another) Adrienne
    (another) Adrienne says:

    I was probably the only kid in the entire history of Hebrew School that did her homework. Many years later, I realize I should have spent that time coming up with creative ways to ditch Hebrew School and not get caught.

  23. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    wait, you were playing in your grandfathers front yard, and you realized that you are connected to the outdoors.. r u seriously?

    thats about as broad a stroke as you can get. all kids frigging play in the yard. what the hell else are they going to do? and all people are connected to the outdoors? i mean, what other kind is there, the connected to the indoors type?

    whoa, revelatory stuff. I guess it proves just how out of touch age makes us, if you have to resort to weird thought experiments to put the obvious right in front of you where you can see it again.

    my advice, go smoke a spliff, you folks probably need it.

  24. Monica
    Monica says:

    So does that mean I should be a book reviewer or a sharp shooter? I spent my childhood voraciously reading everything I could get my hands on or outside shooting guns with my dad. Every science project I ever did had to do with gun ballistics :-)
    I did want to be a hitwoman or Laura Croft….

  25. michael cardus
    michael cardus says:

    Recently i led a youth group on bullying prevention. This was a welcomed break from the adult groups I have led in the past. I saw unfiltered emotion and love for being themselves. No posturing and emotional bullying – just out loud emotion and feelings. I often also return to my childhood and think about the influences in my life that have taken me to were I am now.

  26. m
    m says:

    I loved reading, daydreaming, loved animals, and enjoyed being outside/in nature mostly by myself. I enjoy being creative and liked to draw and write. I always loved clothes and fashion. I still like all those same things.

    I like the quiet, but not boredom. I like being out and being somewhat active and do not like to be indoors all day. Need fresh air and to move around.

    As an adult, I have tried teaching but do not want to continue with it, at least not in the traditional sense. Do not wish to be a vet or work at a zoo or animal shelter. Have done editing, proofreading, but became somewhat bored with it once I learned the basics.

    Sitting still at a desk, especially at a 9-5 is not ideal for me. Office work doesn’t seem to be the best match. Does this description spark any ideas for anyone–I could use all the suggestions I can get.

    I’ve considered writing as I do it every day and love it, however I fear it will be one of those situations where I end up turning something I love into something I have to do, and fear losing my love for writing by making a job out of it.

    I agree with the commenter who said it’s a good exercise but difficult to translate one’s loves into an actual career or next step. I’ve found that often a passion becomes a chore once it becomes part of one’s job.

    The key is in figuring out which passions and traits to focus on (as most of us have many divergent ones), learning how those translate to actual paid work, and finding some way to do what suits one’s temperament and character without turning one’s passion into drudgery by making it a daily job that one has to do rather than chooses to do.

    I’ve always known what I love and what suits my temperament–deciding what jobs is ideal based on those traits, that’s been the hard part. Not to disparage the post, as I really appreciate it, but figuring out how likes and dislikes translate to a career or lifestyle is often extremely tricky.

    For those of us who haven’t always known what we want to do for work, it can be quite difficult to figure out, even when we know ourselves well. That’s because it can be tough to know just what any given job will be like for you till you actually try it for a while (at least in my experience). How we envision things will go and how they actually feel when we do them are often very different.

    That element–the translating of traits to a job/career that one is actually be suited for–is for me, and I suspect for quite a few others, not easy at all, and often requires years of trial and error, even when one knows oneself well.

  27. kim jellen
    kim jellen says:

    Great article. Nice to see everyone’s stories of when they were young… and how this exercise works in each scenario. Cool!

  28. Becky
    Becky says:

    Thanks Penelope – really easy to get off track; one job leads to another and before you know it, you don’t recognize yourself anymore. Hope I can dredge up some good stuff to get back on track!

  29. Rosie Reilman
    Rosie Reilman says:

    Definitely food for thought, Penelope, for sure. I’ll have to think more about this… I think a lot of times I focus on where I’ve improved and matured. To kinda go backwards and get back to my “roots” so to speak might be a nice change of pace.

  30. Amadou M. Sall
    Amadou M. Sall says:

    Penelope, now I know why you’re such an awesome thoughtleader: you’ve always been a leader, persuasive, fearless and irresistible. A born leader. No normal human being can resist you. The only thing you owe the world is: Just keep on being yourself. You’re right on track. And I’m your #1 fan :-)

  31. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    To m: You said, “Office work doesn't seem to be the best match. Does this description spark any ideas for anyone – €“I could use all the suggestions I can get.”

    I can relate to that.

    I don’t know exactly what your field of education is, but I can make some general suggestions.

    (1) If you are in a field of science or engineering, there are a lot of jobs that allow plenty of field work. Geology is an obvious one, but forestry (including urban forestry), land reclamation, agronomy, oceanography, civil engineering, and many fields of biological sciences are amenable to outdoor work (and even demand it).

    (2) If you are in administration, try to find a job that involves field work. Highway departments, parks/recreation agencies, and construction companies are good choices.

    (3) If you are in a field like social work, try to find a job in a rural area.

    (4) You’ve tried teaching but don’t like it. That probably means you have a teaching degree or certificate. What about physical education? That’s an outdoor job at least some of the year, and it involves moving around a lot all year round. Or how about working as a park interpretive ranger? Are there any jobs in your area that involve leading field trips? (Those could be archaeological, botanical, geological, zoological, etc.)

    (5) How are your people skills? If they are good, an outside sales job gets you out of the office a lot.

    Just a few ideas…

  32. Amy B.
    Amy B. says:

    This post assumes a childhood of autonomy, affluence, and limited supervision. Kids with controlling parents, no money, or crushing household responsibilities; or kids with unlimited access to TV, rarely enjoyed the freedom or leisure to “be” or “do” in an environment that allowed their “true” selves to blossom. Hindsight doesn’t always produce insight.

  33. Katybeth
    Katybeth says:

    My husband is trying to figure out “what next” in his life–I shared your post and he actually thanked me! I played with dolls and dogs as a child–bossing both around—I grew up to be a stay at home mom that earns her living as a professional pet spoiler!
    Thanks,this is the first article I have read by you and I am sure it will be one of many! Not forgetting to mention that I will keep in touch on twitter!

  34. phreaked
    phreaked says:

    Exactly true.

    Some of the best advice my mother ever gave me was to not forget who you were when you were 5 years old.

    That is the essential You. The You that existed before society came calling mandating how you should act.

    When people ask me to describe myself I usually think of that 5 year old and talk about her.

  35. Dale
    Dale says:

    As a child, to get out of my really unpleasant life I would read anything that I could get my hands on and make up stories. I kept my little brother mesmerized with tales of adventure and he followed me around like I was a hero. He was the only person who thought I was worth anything and
    I miss those days, but only for that. The rest of the time I spent listening to my parents fight and being teased endlessly by classmates. No one but a couple of teachers ever hit me, (because I was lucky enough to be built like a truck back then) but back then in the West Indies, corporal punishment was normal. In fact, they only did it because they “cared” and because my father told them that I was a dreamer and a slacker, and needed to be “straightened out.”

    Fast forward 30 years, and I’m still day-dreaming, telling stories to my children and making up games for them to play. Come to think of it, I’m at my happiest when I’m wrapped up in a good book or spinning a tale for my little and not so little ones. I even have a board game out that is doing okay; go figure. But, my serious career is the most frustrating and unfulfilling exercise in monotony. Hey, if I had heard and listened to your advice back when I was young and could do something about it, I’d probably be a teacher or author or some such day-dreaming slacker today. I guess it’s never too late…

  36. Jackie
    Jackie says:

    I agree that you can look to your younger self to find out about your current self. However, I must caution that you can often look back and see what you want to see. You pull the characteristics out of the story that you want to pull out, which match your version of what you are today. Your perception of yourself changes and I would say that for anyone, the way that you view an event and the characteristics of yourself that you see are different as your current perception of yourself changes. I have seen this in myself. I sunk into depression and saw a particular event in my childhood very differently from when I wasn’t depressed- and I caught myself thinking that way. I think that it would be very interesting to keep a detailed diary of your life from as young an age as you can (something I have tried to do as much as possible) and see whether the characteristics that you see today match the ones you saw in the past. I also believe that your awareness of a characteristic can increase over time, and you can see that characteristic better as your life goes on, even if it was there all along- the hard thing is to distinguish between whether it was there but you didn’t see it or if you see it now but it wasn’t really there.

    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Memories of childhood, consciously examined, are indeed complicated. I must have had some happiness but I only remember a docile child perplexed by the circumstances in which she found herself.

  37. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    I’m reading a book called “The Soul’s Code” by James Hillman and it has a similar message to this post… Who we are as children, what we were interested in, what we enjoyed doing and were good at…that’s who we truly are. I believe this and embrace it. It’s too bad I spent my 20s and 30s beating myself up for being introverted and anti-social. I love to be alone and read and write, and I’ve always been that way. I used to take my books out into the woods or up in one of my brother’s treeforts. Those are some of my happiest memories. I think I need a treefort now. My husband can build one for me!

  38. Jael
    Jael says:

    When I did this exercise five years ago, I came up with the sea of rocks we used to walk on at the cult. When we got tired of walking, we’d sit down and sift them sorting them to find what we’d hoped would turn out to be diamonds. Sometimes we’d put them in our mouths and suck the salty dirt off. That’s why even though geology was a huge downsize of my initial dreams, I knew it would work for me.

Comments are closed.