Q&A: Why You Can’t Be Anything You Want to Be

Despite what many of us were told as children, we can’t always be anything we want to be. Sean Johnson explains why in this week’s expert Q&A.

Career Advice - You Can't Be Anything You Want to Be

How do you think such a large portion of society came to believe in the “you can be anything you want to be” mentality?

No idea – it could have been a reaction to how their parents made them feel, it could have been the work of some sociologists, it could have been Mister Rogers. Like most things I think it’s probably a combination of factors.

As a parent, I can understand how people want their child to feel empowered, like they can make a difference in the world, and can find fulfillment. Those are all great things. The problem isn’t teaching people that they can be anything they want, it’s creating the expectation that they deserve to be able to be anything they want, regardless of the effort they put in and regardless of anything going on in the outside world.

Why is preaching this belief dangerous?

It’s disconnected from reality. There are two important caveats that are usually left out of platitudes like this.

  1. You have to recognize that there are market forces outside of your control, and try to deploy your talents in a way that can maximize the impact given those market conditions.
  2. Regardless of industry, you have to be staggeringly good at what you do. It’s not enough to simply want to do something, you have to deliberately practice your craft, usually over a long period of time. This is magified to the degree that there is scarcity with point number one. It doesn’t really matter that you want to be a teacher if there are a small number of jobs. You have to somehow prove you are demonstrably better than your peers to get one of the limited opportunities available. Or you learn how to create your own opportunities (my preference.)

What message should we be sending instead and who is responsible for sending it?

There are a few things I think people need to understand to find fulfilling work.

  1. Nobody owes you anything. The government cannot and will not create the conditions necessary for everyone everywhere to have great, fulfilling work. And a company isn’t obligated to hire you simply because you got a degree somewhere or did an internship. Once you realize you are responsible for your own destiny, you start to focus on making sure you create value. People who learn how to create considerably more value than they cost will always have work.
  2. The movie montage where someone becomes instantly successful at something doesn’t exist. You only get somewhere through the long, difficult process of acquiring mastery in a particular field.
  3. Most people have it backwards. They think they can just find passionate work that they love, but they end up bouncing around from job to job never quite finding fulfillment. This is because fulfillment usually comes with competency – as you become great at something you love it more and more.

Ideally everyone would understand and work to teach this, but the people most likely to do it are the parents. Show your kids you believe in them while simultaneously teaching them that discipline, hard work and value creation are necessary for good things to happen.

What is your advice to those who have unsuccessfully pursued their passion?

That’s hard, because there are lots of emotions tied up in this. But hopefully someone can get the proper distance to evaluate why it happened. It’s probably one of a few reasons:

  • They aren’t meeting a market need – they’re good at something that nobody wants.
  • It’s something people want, but they aren’t good enough or providing enough value to be the person to do it.
  • They’re good at the work itself but terrible at getting the work or getting in front of people.

If you nail all three of those things, you’ll probably succeed.

The good news is you probably still have plenty of time. It’s easy for someone who’s 28 to get despondent about not being further along in their careers, but they’ve been doing it for 6 years. They have 37 years left to make something happen. Get up, dust yourself off, and try again.

What would you say to those who continue to believe and assert that anyone can become anything?

Prove it. I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way – I actually want people to be successful. I just think understanding reality for what it is, and doing necessary work are the keys to making that happen. Take that belief in yourself and channel it in ways that will maximize the likelihood of success.


Sean Johnson - ZipRecruiter Career ExpertAbout the Expert

Sean Johnson is a partner at Digital Intent, helping companies like Groupon, Sittercity, and Follett build and grow great new products. He’s also an adjunct professor of marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business. He writes about career development and doing great work on his personal site, and has spoken at universities around the country on entrepreneurship, marketing and building a great career. You can follow him on Twitter at @intentionally.


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Rachel Dotson is a former digital marketing manager and former blog contributor at ZipRecruiter. She is based in Venice, California.

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