08/01/2011 12:00 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2011

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

The beauty of career reinvention is that you can change direction at any time. You should feel comforted that you have the power to control your career destiny so your "grown up" career can be redesigned multiple times.

Research has shown that values: core beliefs and motivation, are the greatest predictors of career satisfaction. It's important to know that values change over time in relation to your life circumstances. Many people grow out of their careers and seek new opportunities that better match their values at a given point in time.

There are 6 life stages, as referenced by Nicholas Weiler that will put changing values in perspective and help you understand that what you want to be when you grow up will change depending on where you are in your individual life cycle.

From the parent who wants to take time off from a career to raise young children, to the seasoned professional looking to achieve more and create a legacy -- values evolve over time. Check out these life stages and determine where you are in the cycle and how your current work/life values are impacting your career decisions.

Independence and Exploratory Choices (Approximately 18-26)
A stage when you are developing personal autonomy and leave home to establish self-sufficiency. You develop a sense of personhood separate from parents and childhood peer groups. You try out new relationships (romantic interests, professional associates, peer groups and friends). This is typically a period of tentative or provisional commitments. You are comfortable there is plenty of time ahead to change your mind on conditional decisions concerning things like location, occupation, plans to marry -or not marry, friends, key life values, etc. Your focus is on defining yourself as an individual and establishing an initial life structure.

Young Adult Evolution (Approximately 27-31)
This is usually a period of significant turmoil - of looking at who you are becoming and asking if you are really moving in the direction you want. You question most of your earlier tentative choices. Have you made the right decisions? Are you running out of time for changing your decisions? Are your decisions becoming permanent before you want them to? Do you really want to make this location, career path, or romantic relationship permanent? Will you settle down and have a family - or not? Is time running out? Sometimes, with anxiety similar to the mid-life crisis you rethink your provisional decisions and maintain them or change them in the process of making more permanent choices.

Making Commitments (Approximately 32-42)
This is typically a period of relative order and stability where you implement and live the choices made in the young adult evolution stage. You settle down into deeper commitments involving work, family, your community ties, etc. You focus on accomplishment, becoming your own person and generating an inner sense of expertise and mastery of your profession. You have a better developed and well defined dream of what you want to achieve in life. You put significant energy into achieving the dream.

Mid-Life Transition (Approximately 42-48)
This is the stage of mid-life questioning that's been identified so widely as mid-life crisis. Here you tend to question everything again. If you have not achieved your dreams you wonder why not. Were they really the right dreams? If you have achieved our dreams you look at what values you might have neglected in their pursuit. Was it worth it? Either way you may be disillusioned. A period of reassessment and realignment usually takes place, including recognition and re-balancing of key priorities.

Creating a Legacy (Approximately 49-65)
The period after completion of the mid-life transition can be one of the most productive of all stages. You are usually at the peak of your mature abilities here. If the issues of the mid-life transition have been acknowledged and addressed you can make your greatest possible contributions to others and society. You can now be less driven, less ego-centered, less compelled to compete with and impress others. Instead you can focus on developing younger people, on community with others, on leaving some personal legacy that really makes things better for people, and on accomplishing values that your maturity tell you have the most true meaning in the overall scheme of your life.

Spiritual Denouement (Approximately 66 and Beyond)
This is the stage of tying things up, of completing the design of what you want to become, of finalizing your growth and assessing/fine-tuning the person you have made of yourself. This stage can go on for many years. It can be hopeful or cynical depending on how realistically, humbly, and effectively you have resolved (or will resolve) the issues faced in earlier stages. You may move into this stage sooner or later depending on how rapidly you have developed in earlier stages - how much you have moved beyond your narrow self. Here you come to grips with the ultimate limitations of life, yourself, and mortality. You can look hopefully and unflinchingly at the ultimate meaning of your life and the life of others in the larger context. You do the best you can to pass whatever wisdom you have gained on to others. You accept others for what they are, seeing them as evolving like you are, and part of humankind's diversity.

It's important to know that you alone are in control of your career values as well as how you pursue opportunities that match your passion. Some people value variety, autonomy, security, prestige, or flexibility - the options are endless. Think about what motivates you and why.

Give yourself permission to make choices and change or reinvent throughout your career life based on your current stage. Too many people feel trapped in a career and it seeps a toxin into their personal life that can be debilitating.

A 57 year old woman recently told me that she was frustrated with her career but close enough to retirement that it was not a possibility to change at this time. Nothing could be father from the truth. This woman can be exactly what she wants to be when she grows up! At 57, this is the perfect time to do a values and strengths re-assessment and focus on new opportunities that will gratify and empower her on this stage in her journey.

It's never too late to redirect but knowing your stage in life, what motivates you, and what gives you strength are the first steps towards a more fulfilling career. You are never too old to ask the question - What do I want to be when I grow up? And no matter what stage in life you are in - always honor your values.

Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name ( She is also the Director of Career & Professional Development at Indiana University Maurer School of Law.