Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

How did you become who you are? Four lessons for getting to what’s next

She asked us the career question, “What do you do for a living?” But she was really asking a much larger question: How did you figure it out and become who you are?

The other night I picked up my college sophomore daughter to bring her home for spring break. A friend of mine joined me for the hourlong drive south. Stormy weather made the roads tricky, plus she and I needed time for a chat. My daughter asked, via text, could we also bring home two of her friends? 

Catherine Day
Catherine Day

One of our riders, Emily, a senior linguistics major, was headed to visit her younger sister at another college located near our home. Soon our conversation in front shifted to senior year and aspirations for careers. Emily reported she plans a postgraduation year teaching English to students in Jordan, Morocco or France. We exchanged tips on making connections in far-away lands. The former ambassador to Morocco lives in our city. One of our friends knows the current King of Jordan. If our connections can help, let us know, we say.

Somehow we discover that our young friend was born in the same town where my ride-along friend went to law school. Emily is the same age as my friend’s oldest child. It’s possible they might have met each other some 20 years ago! 

Article continues after advertisement

Then Emily asked each of us, how did we get our start? How did we find our first jobs? What were they? Does our current work relate to what we did in college? 

The miles back to the city flew by. We each shared the stories of our paths toward a career.

I explained that with a major in English, most people thought I had limited career options. They said, ‘Oh, you can be a teacher.’ I was not interested in teaching. Later, I realized that for almost every job I’ve held, I did not know the work existed before I started doing it. 

  • I did not know what a grant was until I had to write one.
  • I never heard the term microelectronics until I had to raise $5 million to fund a center for it.
  • And I never imagined my partner and I would launch a television show from our living room. Started before YouTube, it’s still the only TV show to go from cable access to prime time national distribution. 

One: One thing leads to another

What became clear to me after just a few minutes is that it is really important to take time to share our life trajectory stories with young people. What better way is there for them to uncover their own possible path forward onto the next stage of their lives? To surface ideas of how they are going to find their way into the world of work? They need to hear both the pathways others have taken and the lessons we gathered along the way.

Two: The importance of willingness

For example, looking back, I learned that it is much more important to be willing to try things on, to jump in and say, ‘I can do this’ or ‘I am willing to help’ than it is to know the right way to do it. 

I realized later, some of my early career accomplishments had not been done by anyone before me. No, they were not big discoveries. They were tasks that needed doing and no one else had done them. 

Three: Curiosity trumps expertise

My career success grew from small commitments: carefully reading instructions, asking lots of questions while listening closely to the answers, learning how to make a compelling argument, taking a calculated risk, and being willing to “ask for the order.”

Emily was asking us the career question, “What do you do for a living?” But she was really asking us a much larger question: How did you figure it out and become who you are? Who are you still becoming?

Four: Initiating the questions

To find her own answers, other questions will necessarily come first. Ones that she most certainly will want to answer for herself:

  • Who am I inside?
  • What am I enthused about?
  • What do I stand for?
  • What matters to me?
  • What do I want to do about it? 

These questions merit our attention wherever we are on the path. It matters to my generation what this new generation thinks about their prospects for the future. Warnings of a difficult economy, the jobless recovery, and a whole sea of issues that need solving dominate. Yet they know we faced challenges, too, and somehow we got where we are.

Taking time for such conversations among college-aged peers and older adults about identity will certainly lead to better choices about life and career. Hearing many possible answers can help when it comes to figuring it all out.

Will you take time to have a conversation with a college student about their future? When was the last time you remembered your own story?

Tell me, how did you become who you are? Who are you becoming?

Catherine Reid Day, CEO of Storyslices LLC, is a producer, author and consultant who uses stories to help people get to the more they want — more revenues, recognition, and relevance. She’s teaching a series of workshops on Identity, Longing and Desire: Four Pathways to a Larger Life through Adler Graduate School. She can be reached at


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at