I’m in My Late Thirties and Still Not Sure What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

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Reader’s Question

I’ll be 39 this year, and I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. I’m not looking for fame or riches, I just want to do something I can look at, and be proud to say: Hey, I did that.

I have been a computer programmer for over 10 years now, and I like the work OK. It keeps us confortable money wise, but it’s not something that I can say really gets me out of bed in the morning.

With home-based side projects, I come up with what I feel are great ideas for software, but I don’t focus enough to get any measurable amount of work done. (I’m sure I could do more at work as well.)

Since I lack focus, it makes me wonder if I really want to do it. I guess the best analogy I can think of is how I would like to lose weight, and get fit, but I don’t take the steps to get it done.

So the question I guess is, can I somehow fire up my motivation mojo, or do I maybe need to seek out other goals outside of programming? Honestly, I cannot think of what I would rather do, but I sure don’t act like it. Any tips or kicks in the buttocks would be greatly appreciated.

Psychologist’s Reply

We can approach this problem in two ways: as a problem with motivation, or as a problem with inattention. It doesn’t sound like an inattention problem, since your job requires such detailed learning and concentration, but let’s consider that first and rule it out. In disorders such as ADHD-Inattentive Type, people often make complaints such as yours. When treated medically for the disorder, their behavior and motivation change instantly. To be diagnosed with this particular disorder, one needs to have had these symptoms before the age of six. If that is the case for you, then it is possible that you have never grown out of the disorder and the symptoms have become more troubling with your increased demand to be attentive. If you feel this describes you, then consult with your internist about it. Medication trials for this disorder are very straightforward. You will be able to tell by your response to that treatment if this is the source of the problem.

On the other hand, if you are simply not motivated to do what you are currently doing, then we can think about helping you find another vocation or avocation that you find satisfying. In these difficult days, it is very hard to find a different job, much less a different career. Opportunities are few, and competition is fierce. Therefore, keep your day job while you explore possibilities. Next, do a little research online into vocational counseling. You will find many psychological instruments, such as the Strong Inventory, that measure two things about your personality: what you could perform well at, and what you would enjoy doing. Interestingly, these two different measures do not always align. It is very entertaining to take this ‘test’ and read the results. That is a good place to begin.

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If you find something that resonates for you, then it may motivate you to explore it as a hobby. If it develops into something more than that, then that is wonderful. There is a better chance of a hobby developing into a new career if it is not burdened with the expectation to meet all of your financial and day-to-day needs.

The last thing I can suggest is, once you’ve identified something that would give you pleasure, then try to do it in a group. Your work seems solitary, which is very difficult to do when you have only your own motivation to keep you on task. When you are part of a group, you get the double pleasure of the social interaction as well as the activity itself. If your motivation wanes, then you can still engage in the activity because you are part of the group, and you belong. Imagine the difference between going to the gym and performing a boring workout alone compared to joining a class, such as a dance class (if you enjoy dancing) and getting your workout by playing with your friends. The play is what you do, the fitness is a pleasant side-effect.

Get some feedback from an outsider like your doctor or the Strong Inventory, and then watch yourself react to that feedback. Try not to force a reaction, just watch yourself and see where your pleasure lies. As Joseph Campbell advised, follow your bliss. But as our survival mandates, keep your day job!

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