Grow Up

The question, from executive coach and marketing expert Jay Abraham, seemed to come from left field.

We were discussing ambition. I said I was interested in a lot of things, in fiction and books and columns. I said I was looking for opportunity.

But Jay cut to the chase with a simple question.

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

Well, I said, I’m 46, as grown up as I’ll ever be. But the question still hit home because my answers to his earlier questions indicated some drift. I might be this, or this, or that, depending on what others might decide. No, he demanded, what do you want?

A lot of people are asking themselves that question in this dot-bomb economy. They’re trying to strip down their ambitions to a single role, the one that fits them best.

Take Bill Gates, for instance. (Please.) By turns Mr. Billions has been an executive, a strategist, a negotiator, a symbol, and dozens of other things. But what he really wants to be, he told Talk Magazine, is a geek.

He’s writing code again, thinking about software as software again; he’s getting back to his roots again after the distractions of the government’s antitrust case. Love him or hate him, at least he knows what he wants to be when he grows up.

Or take Eric Schmidt. He’s been a speaker, a scientist, and a corporate king, but his crown at Novell was never a great fit. As the new chairman of Google, he may have found the role he likes best — strategist.

No one can be everything. At some point in life, our reach will always exceed our grasp. For many of us in Internet commerce, that time has come. The millions have crumbled into dust; maybe even our jobs have gone. Whether we’ve been a product or project manager, or a marketing or sales executive, we’re either not anymore or wondering whether we should be.

I took a call the other day from a friend on the West Coast. He’s a top executive who is liked by his bosses, but family reasons are sending him back East. He sent me his risumi, saying he would consider jobs like his current position, in management at a start-up or even at a teaching or research institution.

Wait a minute, I wrote back. Why are you settling for what the market brings you? You’re bright and accomplished; you have decades of experience behind you. What do you want to be when you grow up?

The question is harder to answer than it seems. Because the true answer is always one thing, one hat among the row of hats you’ve put on in running a company or doing your job. And it’s not about the money or the power — the rich and powerful need to answer it as much as the rest of us do.

So ask it of yourself — right now. Close your eyes, and ask it. What do I want to be when I grow up? Breathe slowly and deeply, look into your heart, demand the truth of yourself.

Do you have the answer? Good.

Now open your eyes and go for it.

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