Jerry McLaughlin - What do you want to be when you grow up? Featured

4:10am EDT December 19, 2013
Jerry McLaughlin, CEO, Jerry McLaughlin, CEO,

If you’re like most Americans, chances are that question has haunted you from adolescence to adulthood.

Which is a shame, because it’s a terrible question. It sends our vocational thinking down the wrong path — which might help explain why 70 percent of Americans are unhappy with their work, and why more than 2 million voluntarily quit their jobs each month, according to a recent Forbes article. And when you consider how much of our lives Americans dedicate to our jobs, being unhappy at work too often means being unhappy, period.

Clearly, we need to adopt a new way of looking at our own careers.

Discover your talent

Let’s begin with the basic fact that you, dear reader, are a genius. That doesn’t mean you’re the next Albert Einstein. You are a genius as the dictionary defines it: “Exceptionally creative or talented, either generally or in some particular respect.” That has to be true about you. You are a once-in-the-history-of-the-universe creation. You must be exceptionally talented in some particular respect. But in what respect, exactly?

That’s the question we ought to be posing to our children, and the one we should be asking ourselves. Not, “What job do you want to get?” but “What thing(s) are you really good at?” Not, “What do you want to be?” but, fundamentally, “What makes you you?”

Pursuing this introspective line of questioning is a soulful, exciting process that leads to greater peace, happiness and productivity.

The fearful may warn against indulging our individual exceptionalities because we have to pay the bills. There are only two ways to get rich in this life: winning the lottery (not too likely, alas) or delivering some unique value to the world. What more promising way to unearth unique value than via the particular respect in which you are exceptional?

I renewed this inquiry for myself not long ago, as I approached my 50th birthday. I am happier and more at peace for having done it — and I’m a better CEO, too. Because, just as the only way for a business to thrive is to differentiate itself from the pack, so too the only way we can thrive as business leaders is by understanding our own unique qualities. We can only produce the exceptional by understanding how we are exceptional. 

Challenge yourself

So, here’s my challenge to you: Set aside the time to purposefully and deliberately explore what makes you exceptional. You won’t just be charting your course to personal fulfillment; you’ll be paving the way for creating value in the world. If you are unsure how to begin, pick up a copy of Todd Henry’s book, “Die Empty,” and do the exercises that resonate with you.

Unveil the new you

The New Year sparks the same desire in many of us: Be better, be different, be great. Instead of adopting a litany of resolutions designed to create a “new you,” resolve to reflect on the exceptional you that has existed all along. After a lifetime of striving to become what you think you’re supposed to be, let this be the year you define and celebrate the genius you naturally are.

Ask yourself the right questions:

  • What am I good at?
  • What makes me special?
  • What makes me happy? 

Finding those answers — and living them — are the only resolutions you’ll ever need.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. He can be reached at