When I Grow Up

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
– e.e. cummings

I spent most of my early twenties frantically trying to determine if I was in the ‘right’ career.  Many career guides ask you to recall your career ambitions from childhood, so I thought back to mine, and all I could remember was a vague desire to be a nurse. Since I feel faint at the sight of blood and this didn’t seem like the best career option for me, it finally occurred to me to call my mom and ask what she remembered.

The conversation went something like this:

“Mom, when I was little, what did I say I wanted to be when I grew up?”

“A pioneer woman.”


Apparently, my favorite television show was “Little House on the Prairie,” and I spent hours in a calico dress, wearing a bonnet, and pretending to churn butter. While this offered a somewhat interesting insight into my childhood, it didn’t exactly advance my career quest.

“What about a nurse? I thought I wanted to be a nurse?”

“You wanted to be a nurse because our neighbor across the street was a nurse, and she worked late hours, which meant her kids got to eat T.V. dinners. You desperately wanted T.V. dinners and I wouldn’t buy them.”

Well, I’m glad I didn’t spend thousands on nursing school when all I really needed was a $1.99 Lean Cuisine!

Unfortunately, I spent almost ten years studying subjects (math) and working in fields (computer support) that I was good at, but brought me zero pleasure. I was trying to please my parents, my teachers, and everyone who thought it was a really good idea for women to study in science and technology fields. It was a good idea … if you were a woman who liked science and technology.

The one class I absolutely loved was Sociology 101, commonly called “Marriage and Family.” It was a fascinating look at gender roles and the challenges and trends in modern family life. Little did I realize how useful this information would be for me later in life, both personally and professionally. When I tried to talk to people about doing this kind of work for a living, they told me it was nuts to get a Master’s Degree in Social Work because all the jobs were low in pay.

Fast-forward twenty years, and I am working in Human Resources. I found my way into this career through a circuitous path and it took courage to finally admit I liked being in a field that helped people. I love being in an industry with women who are willing to talk about the struggles we experience in our jobs and I am excited by the challenge of modern trends in family life and how they affect our workplaces.

It seems like a miracle some days that I ended up working in an area that I love so much. Was it just an accident?

I called my Mom back.

“Mom, forget the pioneer woman and the nurse. What did I like to do when I was little? How did I spend my time?”

She thought for a moment and said, “First thing every morning you would grab the newspaper and bring it to me or your Dad. We would read “Dear Abby” out loud and you would try to guess Dear Abby’s answer to the writer. You loved talking about people’s problems.”

Ah-ha! As an HR Director, what’s my favorite part of my job? Employee coaching and counseling. Apparently I knew all along what I wanted to be when I grew up, I just needed the courage to get there.

What was your childhood ambition? What you are doing today that took courage?

Photo credit iStock Photo

About the Author

Andrea Ballard

For 15+ years, Andrea Ballard, SPHR, has brought a unique, common sense perspective to the business of HR. A former HR Director and Training Manager, she advises companies on how to design/implement flexible work life programs to attract/retain top talent. A certified coach, she helps women create a balance between motherhood & career. She is the owner of Expecting Change, LLC, blogs at Working Mother and is on Twitter as @andreaballard.


Lois Melbourne

I believe the crtiical question is the last one you asked your Mom – what did I like to DO. Many children don’t know what they want to be, because they don’t know the job options that are out there. Parents lump their answers into the top 20 visible or romantic responses for their kids.

We must help people find what they like to do – and then expose them to the 100s of jobs that would allow them to enjoy that stuff almost every day.

This is a key part of my career mentoring for high school and college kids, plus my own son.

PDX Chick

I wanted to be so many things: archaeologist, historian, pioneer (yep, me too), journalist, politician, interior designer… The funny thing was that my dad always said I should go into HR; I even spent all my “bring your kid to work” days in HR, instead of accounting, where my dad actually worked. So, when I fell very happily into HR, I had tell him he’d been right all along. He didn’t say “I told you so”–but he sure could have!

Andrea Ballard

Kimberly – “Ever consumed withour minds and how they work,” now that is a springboard to success in any career.

Trisha – Glad we have our Laura Ingalls admiration in common! Maybe we should attend the annual Little House on the Prairie festival together!

Holly – Your comment about Ghostbusters absolutely cracked me up. There’s nothing like a smart 11 year old to set people straight!!


This is great – I love how your Mom knew what your reasons for wanting to be a nurse were and you never did. We all have childhood memories like that.

My strangest childhood career ambition was Parapsychologist. When I was 11 I read everything I could find on paranormal phenomena and those who investigate it. Because of that, when I saw Ghostbusters I huffily informed everyone that Venkman couldn’t have had a degree in parapsychology because there was no such thing! (A book I had read explained the schooling required.) Ah, no surprise that a know-it-all kid is became a know-it-all adult . . . .

Like so many people in HR I fell into this career, I didn’t choose it. In many ways it is well-suited for me and I seem to be good at it (mostly). The one enduring career ambition I’ve had is to become a publshed author. That hasn’t happened yet, but I have time. 🙂

Trisha McFarlane

Andrea, I love your post and the process of it all. When I was little, I wanted to be like Laura Ingalls on Little House too. As I got older, I realized I love investigating things and thought about being a detective. I used to pretend to be that as a girl. I ultimately got my undergrad in Sociology because people fascinate me. I love trying to figure out why people behave the way they do.

Fast forward to now and I think it all makes sense for me to be in HR. I get to use my investigative skills and figure out what makes employees tick. I also think that Laura Ingalls was a role model as a strong little girl that stood up for what she thought was right. Another great skill to bring to HR.

Great post!

Kimberly Roden

I loved reading this Andrea. When I was little, i wanted to be a lawyer because I loved to argue with my mother. I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to pull that off because I’m not good at it — I can barely tell a joke w/out ruining it let alone tell a compelling story to sway a jury. I also loved sociology and psychology as well as helping people. Psychiatry was my 2nd choice but I know me and I would keep myself up at night worrying about my patients. I’m ever consumed with our minds and how they work. The “who” is much more important than the “what”… great points!

Andrea Ballard

Krista – I think we make the mistake of talking to kids and young adults so much about ‘what’ they want to be when they grow up rather than “who.” Focusing on the “who” and how you want to spend your time may be more difficult than an easy label like ‘nurse’ or ‘lawyer’ but it sure would help in the long run.

Sarah – I love the idea of a studying philosophy as a way to learn to think! Who doesn’t need that in their career?


I love this post. Alas, my childhood ambitions involved Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader and some sort of superhero. I was also fascinated by the women in banking because they got to wear nice dresses and good shoes. I think my dream job now is to be someone’s reader/editor and get paid real money to sit on the beach and read (really, the beach is just a location, not a necessity for a job posting — I can read anywhere). I remember my parents very sternly telling me I could be anything I wanted to be as long as (fill in the blank), but they had veto power because different ideas I had while struggling with the decision whether to continue pursuing ballet as a career were deemed beneath me. So I ended up changing majors from dance to biology back to dance and then to philosophy, and really learning to think has made all the difference in the world.

Krista Francis

Andrea, I really like your process for career discernment! I think you have something there.

When I was little, I wanted to be a nurse, too. But mostly because I had a couple amazing nurses as role models in my life, and also because when we visited the nurse, we usually came away with plastic syringes which were a lot of fun to play with. But when I got to college and looked at the nursing curriculum (all that science!) I said no thanks.

My other young aspiration was to be a writer. I was always writing stories, poems, silly songs and even recipes.

But mostly I think I had very little sense of what career opportunities were actually out there for me.


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