Help Your Teen Make Who They Are…Part of What They Do

parent tip Feb 25, 2021

Think back to how many times you’ve met someone new at a backyard barbecue or school event and were asked within the first five minutes, “What do you do?”

Happens all the time, right? So often our jobs feel meant to impress others, instead of being meaningful and rewarding to us. We’ve been conditioned over generations to believe that our jobs identify us—and often in all the wrong ways. Not because our careers reflect our passions and talents, but because they led to advancement and a bigger paycheck.

In fact, sometimes our careers even end up defining us because they’ve turned out to be so…unrewarding! How often do you hear someone gripe about how they can’t stand their job or are counting down the days to retire? So even though we spend a full one-third or more of our life at work, a job can feel like something we just “do,” rather than something we’re engaged in and enthusiastic about.

But here’s the good news. You have an opportunity to turn this outdated concept of “what we do is who we are” on its head and help your own children avoid this pitfall.

How? By guiding your teen to make career choices that best reflect who they are, so they don’t fall into a job that ends up defining them. Or using a sports analogy, help shift their mindset from defense to offense so the “career ball” is always in their possession.

Old Thinking: What We Do is Who We Are

Why is it so easy for us to fall into the trap of letting our jobs define us rather than actively designing a career around who we are? Just think about the questions we typically hear adults ask young people about career-related decisions:

What do you want to do when you ‘grow up’?

What role do you picture yourself in after college?

Where do you envision working?

What type of company do you imagine working for someday?

When you stop to think about it, these kinds of questions either overwhelm teens because they have no clue what they want to do when they “grow up”—or they end up steering students toward a specific location, vocation, company, etc.

We also see young adults making career-related decisions based on external factors that are not driven by natural interests and skills, but by a paycheck, fear, or what everyone else is doing. The four major mistakes people make early in their career are:

  • Being driven only to make money
  • Relying too much on the opinions of others
  • Avoiding a challenge
  • Ignoring their instincts

New Thinking: Who We Are is What We Do

So how do we shift away from this old-school, “defensive” thinking in helping our children choose their career path? The key is helping your teen identify his or her passions and talents. Psychologists call this “strength spotting,” and no one can do this better than you. In fact, if you were to let this just happen naturally, your child may never find their true strength until they finished school!

Keep in mind, your job isn’t to create your teen’s strengths—how many times have we all seen this play out with an over-eager parent “motivating” their kid on the football field or high school drama production?

Instead, your role is quietly to help your student learn and discover more about themselves. Start noticing what comes naturally to them, what lights them up. Be open-minded. Be supportive and non-judgmental. Learn to tune in when your son or daughter gets excited about something. Ask questions and start making connections.

Here’s an example. Our daughter Nya has always been a creative child, from a young age. I could give her a handful of toilet paper rolls, colored markers, and Elmer’s glue, and she’d transform it into this really cool piece of art. We also observed that our daughter had a very analytical mind, and we knew she had strong math skills. Through our program’s four-step framework process, which pulls in additional factors that parents and teens explore and analyze together, we figured out that interior design would be a really great career for Nya to pursue. It combines her natural creativity and love for art, with her problem-solving and math skills.

As a parent, you can play an important role in helping your child make a career choice that reflects who they are as a person, rather than having their career fate be decided solely by external factors. Shifting our attitude from one of “what we do is who we are” to one of “who we are is part of what we do” is really a mindset.

And remember, the world has changed since you were in your teen’s shoes and thinking about a career—and while you can acknowledge you “get this''—your child may still be skeptical. So, like most conversations with your teen, avoid being heavy-handed when it comes to doling out the advice. Just remind your child, when you do what you love, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s natural and exciting to you!


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