In the last few months, I’ve found myself in dozens of conversations with friends, colleagues and acquaintances who have had tremendous difficulty trying to do what they love.

These aren’t stupid people, and they aren’t just looking to make money. Many of them have worked hard, pursuing degrees in interesting subjects, seeking noble professions, genuinely looking to make a difference. But as they leave school with a degree and a pile of debt, the jobs they want aren’t there.

As they round into their thirties, they find themselves working in jobs doing something very different than they hoped, usually for less money, and usually in fields they aren’t really passionate about. What happened?

I think they were lied to. You can’t be anything you want to be.

Growing up, many of the people around them told them they could be anything they want to be when they grow up. That they should do what they love and the money will follow. That above all, they should do whatever makes them happy. And yet they look at their lives and find it hasn’t worked out the way they planned. They weren’t lied to on purpose, of course. But they were lied to nonetheless.

It’s understandable. Many of the people doling out this advice watched their parents work jobs they hated, come home exhausted, and have very little energy to spend on their families. But I worry that they swung too far in the other direction.

We started to emphasize passion over discipline. Dreaming over doing. Positivity over pragmatism. And the end result was we became people convinced we get to do whatever we want, even if nobody wants it and even if we’re not particularly qualified to do it.

Here’s what we should have been told instead, and what I plan on telling my son.

The market doesn’t care what you love

There are many noble and critically important professions, but there aren’t unlimited roles in those professions. It’s awesome so many people want to teach our kids, but if 100 million people decided they wanted to become teachers, it doesn’t mean the market is obligated to provide 100 million teaching jobs. It’s not a moral or systematic failure on the part of society. While teaching struggles, nursing is growing like crazy. It’s supply and demand in action.

If you’re looking for a job (versus starting your own business), you’re at the mercy of the market. Some trivial professions are grossly overpaid, while many other beneficial professions are grossly underpaid. Some professions have tons of demand, while others have very limited demand. It doesn’t mean don’t get that degree and don’t aspire to that role, but don’t be shocked if the job isn’t there, and don’t be shocked if it pays less than you hoped.

You must create value

Nobody owes you anything. Just because you have a degree doesn’t mean someone is required to give you a job. You must demonstrate you can create value for people, or else they’ll find another person or method to get things done.

Creating value means learning things other people don’t know. It means doing things other people aren’t willing to do. It sometimes means working for free to demonstrate you’re capable of performing. It means taking on tasks no one else wants and turning them into something better. It means working harder than everyone else.

It means demonstrating you’re worth keeping around and worth paying for.

You must be adaptable.

Technology makes it easier for companies to get more work done with fewer people. When this happens, jobs that were once essential become replaceable. If I make a living putting plastic things on the ends of shoe laces, and someone invents a machine that automates the process, and I subsequently lose my job, my company isn’t evil. My company is maximizing shareholder value by creating efficiencies.

Increasingly, the people who stick around are those who learn how to adapt. They don’t lament when they sense the ground shifting beneath their feet. They learn new skills, figure out how to leverage the new tools or take advantage of the new realities. And, when the writing is on the wall and their days are truly numbered, they formulate a plan for landing on their feet.

You must learn how to sell

No matter what my son decides to pursue professionally, I plan on teaching him how to sell. The reality is you’re selling all day long. You’re selling your ideas to your colleagues. You’re selling your abilities to potential employers. You’re selling your vision for the future to your potential spouse. Persuasive people are successful people.

Being comfortable and effective in sales makes you permanently valuable. No matter what the market is doing, there is always a job for someone who can bring in business (or grants, or donors, etc.). Even if your long-term goals don’t involve a direct sales position, it’s an invaluable skill to have at your disposal for when you need it.

You must be entrepreneurial

Once you know how to create value, adapt to changing conditions and sell effectively, you’ll most likely be tempted to go out on your own. And while many of my friends are lamenting their inability to find a job doing what they love, I have many others who realized that they can create their own opportunities.

The truth is entrepreneurship is no riskier than working for someone else. You definitely have short-term risk and won’t be able to pay yourself immediately. And 9 out of 10 companies fail. But the reasons for failing are usually similar to the reasons for not succeeding in the job market – not creating something people value, and not being able to sell effectively.

The upside is you’re not at the mercy of a organization’s budget. There’s no such thing as a hiring freeze. Anyone with some guts can start a company and use the skills they have to create value for customers. You’ll work harder than you ever have, but you’ll be in control of your destiny.

What our kids will know

I think our children will probably learn from our lives. I think they’ll pursue more degrees with practical applications. I think they’ll be extremely entrepreneurial, and will recognize the world changes too fast to stop learning and growing. And I think they’ll know there is no short cut to getting what they want – they have to work really hard for it.

But what about you? I’d argue that it’s not too late to learn these lessons. If you’re 30, you still have 35 years (or more) of your working life ahead of you. Even if the first few years haven’t gone the way you expected, you have plenty of time. But it will take the courage to confront reality – your actual job prospects, your ability to provide for your family in that role, and what you actually bring to the table for employers.

Thanks to Danny Debelius, David Kadavy, and Willy Franzen for reading drafts of this.

  • nick_smet

    “I think they were lied to. You can’t be anything you want to be”: Sad but true.

    Related: http://andrewoneverything.com/life-is-exactly-what-you-make-of-it-for-most

  • http://twitter.com/BassemDy Bassem Dy

    Beautifully written! It’s about time someone shared these particular thoughts and observations. One cannot stress the importance of being adaptive and multidisciplinary. Mastering a large skill-set is very valuable especially in our industry (Software development [although it's much more than that]).

    However I tend to disagree with the last part, it seems a bit too optimistic (for the short term future). I don’t believe the market will be able to understand and assimilate this perspective, and without a doubt colleges and universities will not change their paradigms to accommodate it. I believe only certain people will be able to pass this perspective to the lucky others, yet even then a lot of people will have a problem adapting for so many reasons (Safe zone, insecurities, lack of motivation etc…).

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Bassem! You might be right, although it seems like it only took a generation to swing the pendulum. Perhaps it can happen again :)

  • Pingback: Thursday August 16, 2012 | Quickthink2

  • http://twitter.com/rogerclark Roger Clark

    The problem isn’t that people are dreamers — it’s that people don’t work to accomplish them.

    There’s nothing that says that you can’t be a dreamer AND a hard worker. We should be teaching kids to be both of these things.

  • Anonymous

    Totally agree. Only thing I’d add would be make sure you understand the market. Applies to starting a business, and applies to looking for work. People have to want what you’re offering. A bold vision that people care about that you’re willing to work hard for is a good recipe for success. Thanks Roger!

  • http://tracker1.info/ Tracker1

    I’d have to say that in addition to learning/working and all practicalities, it also comes down to ability. Not everyone is capable of having a certain amount of specific knowledge usable to them. Or the ability to understand diagnostics as a practice in many professions. In terms of being a lawyer, there’s a lot of core knowledge that is needed, as well as a plethora of case law, specific tools for searching and some areas have a more complicated system than others for how new laws are applied. In terms of being a doctor, you also have to have a combination of skills and domain knowledge. You may want to be a teacher, that doesn’t mean you have a natural aptitude for interacting with people well.

    In my own profession (software dev.), I’m doing what I do because I have a talent for learning, and codifying processes, as well as a certain level of understanding in terms of usability. This combination of talents along with skill/training is what makes me valuable, more so than someone that may have training, but no natural skill. Let alone the fact that we need far more people that load/unload trucks than we will ever need software developers.

    Certain jobs are just more widely available, but by that same note those jobs can be filled by a larger subset of the population, and the pay tends to follow that. Exceptions seem to be in certain markets that are government controlled, subsidized, or otherwise intruded upon with regards to a natural flow.

  • http://twitter.com/kzhu91 Katie Zhu

    Really well written — thanks for posting.

  • anon

    Stress hastens death, therefore hard work is a crime. Revise your beliefs and your statements to make room for this truth.

    Failure to do so will be punished by forfeiture of your own human rights.

  • http://sebastianconcept.com sebastian concept >>>

    fantastic post.

    People should appreciate people that stops the bullshit, listen less Fox News and, for example, more George Carlin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jQT7_rVxAE

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Katie!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Sebastian – although I’m sure I’m full of it most of the time :)

  • Anonymous

    That’s a good point – that should be a part of anyone’s reality check as well – do I actually have the aptitudes to succeed at this? That’s one reason many companies have moved to a competency-based hiring approach. Thanks for sharing!

  • Buddha brains

    I was able to do it with multiple industries. It requires a clear vision, creativity, patience and persistence. I also got a college degree without going into debt because I took my time and took the smart route toward a bachelors degree.

  • zensmile

    I believe that anyone can do anything they set their mind to *and* have the discipline and internal fortitude to achieve. Equation: (vision + determination + planning + execution + discipline) * (good life choices) = success

  • http://twitter.com/tereno10 Tereno

    Well said. Although I personally feel that if someone constantly seeks for happiness based on external circumstances, it’s always going to be tricky to find.

  • mowfask

    … and one day our children will have swung too far into that direction. Being too entrepreneurial and adaptable, loosing track of what really matters.
    It’s always the same and only few are able to find a healthy balance in life.

  • extenditus

    You are right. I have always said the way children are groomed in school about entitlement is the real problem in modern society. You kind of hit the nail on the head in a softer way.

  • n

    This is an excellent article.

  • Ludovic Urbain

    Meh. You can be what you want to be, that doesn’t mean you’ll get it on a silver platter without doing a thing. So of course there is more to learn than just what you like and more to do than just what you enjoy, but … your title sucks.

  • Deowick

    Judge Smails said it best: “The world needs ditch-diggers, too.”

  • koala

    maybe there will not be “jobs” in the future

  • o

    What you say is how I see things as well, but also I feel too much expectations get loaded on to this idea of doing what you love. It only makes you happy for so long. Maybe difficulty of achieving something or constant change and improvment can extend the feeling, but in the end you should be pretty bored with what ever you achieve.. at least if you are ambitious. Getting by and not suffering probably helps living a lot, but beyond that I don’t think you can run away the feelings you generate by succeeding. Pursuing some goal is a constant state in life if you happen to be that sort of person who gets excited about things. I think that is very good and noble, but has almost nothing to do with how you will feel while doing that and living the life. And if your goals are more modest, should that make a difference in how people see you or how you feel about yourself.

    Also I think luck and family history play a huge role and maybe should be mentioned.

    You can be what you want to be, just adjust the goal to match your reality.

  • Anonymous

    Timely I was just discussing this today. As peer to peer marketplaces evolve people will be able to specialize and “do what they love” but we are still a long ways from that. The market isn’t ready for the new economy and undervalues creative problem solving.

  • SR

    When I was a young, my elementary school teachers kept feeding me the “you can be anything!” line; my parents quickly put me in my place and said that no, I could not one day be president, or even an astronaut. My parents knew my personality, they knew my strengths and weaknesses, and so they taught me to, above all else, be realistic, practical and work within my means. I may have followed a less traditional path than most kids these days, but I’m not unemployed and crying about school loans. In fact, I’ve been steadily working since 15 (half my life,) never asked for a handout, and work in a field where I feel I make a difference and have a positive affect on peoples lives. My parents did teach me the importance of finding a field you can enjoy, but also the importance of other passions, of being a good person, of finding beauty in the world and making the best out of what you have; it’s a stark contrast from others for whom nothing will ever be good enough, and guess what – I’m probably happier because at 6 years old, I was told to forget being the first female presidential astronaut.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michele.frettoli Michele Frettoli

    You can be anything you want to be, as long as you are in TRUE contact with yourself and you are able to honestly ask yourself what do you want to do. If you let your ego drive yourself and try to predict your future you will never get there. Anyone can be anything, but your heart wants to do just one thing at a time. Ask him. Heart is not an equation and does not respond to a general rule.

  • Harini

    Shouldn’t the message be that you can find ways to teach
    even within the nursing profession? For example: Stand out as a nurse because of your capabilities around mentoring other nurses
    There are ways to “sneak in” your passion within what the market has to offer.

  • cies

    i interpret that question different; “you can be what you want” to me is like “you can choose what you want to be”. and very much believe that is true. so i’ve chosen to be “happy”, “engaging”, “kicking ass”, “rich”. some of my friends dont get it they choose to be “wanting to be rich/happy/etc”. the thing is since i decide to be happy, im happy, and will always (try to) find proof for that. so… “you can be what you want”, is quite true to me…

  • Kimberly

    Love this post. I see a lot of this problem stem from our schooling. Not only do schools specifically preach the ” You can be anything you want to be” mentality, they also train kids to expect if they complete the requirements, then they deserve the reward. That might work in class, but it completely disregards the marketplace. Colleges are just a culpable, saying it doesn’t matter what degree you have, employers just want to see that you have started and finished something! I loved what you had to say about sales. I think some of the most important things I can teach my kids communicate effectively, show initiative, learn tangible skills that are valued in market place. I have effectively cut this article out and put it in my file. I want to reread it every once in a while so I can refocus how I need to raise my kids.

  • edward mausolf

    Loved the honesty of this post. I will follow for sure!

  • Laurens Bon

    Good luck with pursuing this rat race. I will teach my child to remain peaceful. It’s not about selling your soul, it’s about keeping peace at mind under any given circumstance, while, of course, moving forward. But that’s just my humble opnion.

  • samuel

    nerdy-virgin

  • samuel

    suck a bitch’s dick? she isn’t going to bone you fat ass. the moral of this story is sell your soul for money, great! you would probably give someone vital organs for a fast buck.

  • http://twitter.com/scott7ree Scott

    The market doesn’t lie.

  • Darwin25

    Actually we were lied to intentionally. Once the Baby Boomers graduated college there were 20% fewer people following and the colleges had to do something otherwise the would have to shrink. They made up the statistical lie that if you go to college you will be more successful. To get more people in college, the requirements had to be made easier. ‘You can be anything that you want to be’ was just part of the lie to get people to go to college. At the same time we made it appear that going into the trades was an inferior choice. Just out of college the top 10% of earners in any field make 3 times the amount of the bottom 10%. In their 40′s the ratio is 5 times. Choose a field where you can compete effectively!

  • http://about.adrianshort.co.uk/ Adrian Short

    I want to be a motivational blogger but I can’t seem to find the time or the energy.

  • Elizabeth

    I was always taught that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” but as I’m reaching the end of my 20s, I find that money sure does make attaining happiness a hell of a lot easier! I also remember the shock of graduating from my fancy private liberal arts college with a mountain of debt and finding out that employers weren’t knocking down my door to give me a job – that was the lie that was told to me (no, not directly, but implicitly in many, many ways). I’ve adjusted, I’m doing ok financially, and I have a job that I believe in. But I cringe when someone tells a group of kids (as my choir director did recently) that “you can do anything” because you CAN’T. It’s a comfortable fiction that Boomers tell themselves and us, it’s overly simplistic, and it’s HURTING KIDS. Yes, that’s the way we WANT the world to be, but that’s not the way the world IS. If we want the world to be that way, we have a lot of work to do for generations ahead of us, so let’s be honest about that. Kids believe anything you tell them (they’re stupid like that), but for God’s sake, let’s not actively mislead them.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Tereno – I think it’s less about seeking happiness from external circumstances and more about acknowledging the existence of external circumstances and making decisions with that knowledge. You might still pursue the same thing, but at least you’ll be self-aware enough to recognize the odds might not be in your favor and/or it might not give you the rewards (financial or otherwise) you’d hope.

  • Anonymous

    That’s exactly what many of my more entrepreneurial friends have done – they’ve found ways to marry their passion or skillset with market opportunities. You’re definitely right though – those opportunities can also exist by broadening your scope beyond the job title of “teacher”.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Kimberly – glad it was helpful!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Edward!

  • Thomas Heetderks

    I appreciate this article and completely agree with your message– but one warning worth considering:
    What our children become is so much more caught, than it is taught. I am speaking a the father of four, who are now all grown up. My youngest will be a senior EE student this fall; she is the only one of the four to pursue college. I never finished college. While I have often found myself saying (just like papa Berenstain Bear), do what I say, not what I do– it seldom works. So plan on modeling more than teaching (it would appear that you are doing a good job of this Sean). Our children become little copies of us in so many ways, it’s scary!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Thomas – definitely agree, and have already seen it with our young one. It’s a pretty awesome responsibility.

  • http://www.facebook.com/c3o.org Christopher Clay

    It doesn’t; it just needs technology.

  • http://haridas.in/ Haridas N

    Very nice article, everyone should read this. :). I understood some these realities recently thorough experience. This articles covers most the real challenges a person would face in his/her life time.
    In short what I understood was, every thing is related to the “demand and supply” chain and our positive mentality to exploit the opportunities.

  • http://www.facebook.com/oly.kilo Olly Kilo

    Another important point is that just because you love something doesn’t mean you’re any good at it.

  • ALB

    Not that I don’t get what you’re saying, but at the same time, I’m a little tired of being lectured with the “Nobody owes you anything,” line. Fact is, kids gets sold a bill of goods about education and their future that very often these days doesn’t pan out. And another fact is, everyone IS owed something: honesty and, at least once when you’re growing up, sensible advice.

  • Anonymous

    I disagree, when I was younger I wanted to work in games development, but I sucked badly at math, and I still do, but I LOVE math problems. So applied mathematics degree in hand, I do cool stuff, I work on my kinds of problems,at two different startups. In that respect the largest lesson in life I think I’ve actually applied with varying success is ‘Face your Fear’ – confront it and master it.

    So many years later, I eventually got to work in game development, only to find it’s a high-tech, exploitative industry that siphons talent from more productive endeavor. I’ve worked in Finance on high-frequency trading work and still do , only part time. Now I find my talents are at use in operations research and I work for a non-profit helping to – make a difference.

    What a good STEM education does , in effect is give the average citizen options, and allows them to – provide value – to an employer or to themselves, beyond that, a strong work ethic is mandatory. There is a rather toxic notion I’d heard recently that “luck looks the same as skill on a scoreboard”, and I imagine if life was a basketball game, that might be true, but oftentimes (read always), success is the measure of hard training and education, long persistence and hard , hard work – to get to that hallowed place where we get to do “what we want” even if just for a little while.

    And if we forget that, and get it in our heads that “it’s not my job”, and “this is too hard”, and looking for an “easy way” out, we’ll loose those amazing things in our civilization that previous generations recognized were only maintained by that hard work, and persistence of effort.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Harisas!

  • Craig

    True words of wisdom. Thanks so much for a valuable, well-stated reminder. I’m going to talk to MY kids about this too.

  • Joe

    Good article Memo! I had you in 93 and I am doing very well financially. Well written and the truth!

  • Pingback: Why You Can't Be Anything You Want to Be

  • Terry Derwitsch

    Love it! Here’s my task no one else wants that I’m working unpaid. Happier than ever! http://www.letschuckasickie.com

  • Pingback: The September Edition of The Awesome File. | Dan Oshinsky | Good. Better. Done.

  • http://twitter.com/bdwelle Bowen Dwelle

    I’ve been meaning to write this post for years. Well said, Sean. One of my favorite ways to discover unique value is take two areas of interest and look at how they might fit together e.g. “law” + “Africa”, “math” + “music” etc. Often sparks creative thinking, and can get through blocks and turn corners.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=866620622 Lloyd Hunter Benedict

    FYI Groupon is a shitty company with no real future. Please remove it from your resume as it makes you sound as legtimate as a social media consultant to My Space circa 2004-2006.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=866620622 Lloyd Hunter Benedict

    That considered, this is a well articulated piece that I am directing my team to check out.

  • Rebecca Tibbits

    I don’t know what I was googling, but this came up, and I thought, “Hey! I know that guy!” So I clicked on the link. Very interesting blog. Especially while trying to figure out how bring up a child in this world and not screw her up too badly. Oh, and by the way, I recognized you because I know that beautiful wife of whom you speak.

  • Jamie

    This is similar to Money Mondays on the Tom Leykis show: http://blowmeuptom.com/. Sean – what do you think of Tom Leykis?

  • Jay

    The real leaders create want, they make the marketplace, others live by other standards of self respect and don’t play this awful rat race game, they die poor but with self respect and love for others and lover from others. Hard to do I know, but why is ‘the marketplace’ king? Are we here to serve the marketplace or is it suppose to be there to serve us?

  • LayerCake

    Psychology is a lie

  • J

    Listen to more Carlin, or less Carlin?

  • http://sebastianconcept.com/ sebastian concept >>>

    Carlin work is a bullshit stopper.

    His work makes you more independent thinking and less horde thinking.

  • http://sebastianconcept.com/ sebastian concept >>>

    Carlin work is a bullshit stopper.

    His work makes you more independent thinking and less horde thinking.

  • A

    You can become anything you want to be, which however does not mean you have a 100% chance of becoming anything you want to be. Unfortunately, most people can’t distinguish these two, and end up failing.
    Knowing that there is no guarantee for you becoming what you wish to become, is just as important as knowing that you can definitely become anything you want to be.

  • Pingback: About Have Anything You Want | About Have Anything You Want

  • Morgan

    I feel as though you made some good points throughout but one that stood out to me was about learning to sell. I agree that “persuasive people are successful people.” Not only in every job, but also when applying for a job because you need to know how to sell yourself in an interview. However, I still feel as though it isn’t a negative thing to tell students that they can grow up to be whatever they want to be. My parents told me that and I soon learned (on my own) that I will never be able to grow up to become a princess one day.

  • M

    To quote John Donne, a poet in the 1600′s
    “Let no man say,
    I could not miss a fortune, for I have studied
    all my youth; How many men have studied
    more nights, than he hath done hours, and

    studied themselves blind, and mad in the

    Mathematiques, and yet withers in beggery
    in a corner?”

    …the point is humanity is always relearning what it has lost. Even a PhD is just a piece of paper if you don’t have the skill, tenacity, and ingenuity to back it up with meaningful work.

  • Nicole Pacitti

    It’s crazy how 9 out of 10 companies fail, because you would think that for such a high fail rate that people would stop trying. But I think that it’s the complete opposite, I would want to keep trying at reaching my dream until I succeed. And if that takes failure a couple time, well that’s normal.

  • loleta99

    to tell you the truth anyone can be what they want if they real used there minds do you know that the cleverest scientist uses only 21 percent only from his brain we were given a brain but we did not use it to the fullest

  • Daniel

    Damn losers just because you guys didn’t become what you wanted due to your lack of self discipline and ambition, doesn’t mean you have to teach everyone else to accept defeat like you did…bunch of chumps

  • M.L.H. Javert

    No… the jobs’ll never come back… they’re all in China now…
    Corporations see it as “why pay an American $17/hr. to make something when you can pay someone in China to make it for 15¢/hr.
    I fear for our future…

  • M.L.H. Javert

    Learned that the hard way already. I got a degree in Music because I love music. The problem with that field is only the stellar musicians make money performing, and frankly I’m only mediocre, meaning my job options in my field are limited in number (and payscale).
    That’s what you get when you listen to disillusioned Baby Boomers who grew up, and graduated college in a powerful economy, with a fraction of the college grads that are being outputted today.

  • M.L.H. Javert

    No… thats what back hoes and bulldozers were designed for… humans were displaced from that in the late 1800s-1920s era…

  • M.L.H. Javert

    Being a dreamer gets you nowhere…
    Trust the guy who had a middle class childhood, who worked hard at school and life, got his degree in what he loved/dreamed of doing, and will now inevitably live a life of poverty and destitution. Still believe dreaming and hard work put together mean shit?

  • M.L.H. Javert

    If that’s the case I should already be dead.
    I’ve gone through 2 lifetimes of stress in less than one year… but yet I’m still here. I’ll call your bluff on that one.

  • M.L.H. Javert

    And so is politics, but neither are going anywhere!

  • hsuboi

    Work should NEVER be free, pure and simple. Speaking of “lies”, whether intentional or unintentional, working and sacrificing for free ( such as internships and volunteering) doesn’t make you any better off these days. Labor is labor. Money is food and shelter. You work to make money so you can survive. Pure and simple.