By Andy King, Director of Upper School, Hackley School. Adapted from the opening Upper School Assembly, September 2019
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
When was the first time you remember being asked this question? I think my grandfather was the first to ask me when I was in elementary school. I don’t remember what I said but I can assure you that I did not say that I would “grow up” to be a high school principal.
I believe in the importance of being forward-looking and encouraging you to do the same. Based on what we have learned about your developing teenage brains, this is not always easy for you. Still, I imagine that many of you have thought about what you hope to do later in life and you may even have some sense of a career path. And I also hope that all of you are open to changing your minds. Your generation, more than generations preceding yours, is much more likely to change jobs, careers, and directions many times across your lives, which is one reason why the question “What do you want to be when you grow up” is not the right question for you.
When I was growing up in the 1980s, the U.S. Army ran a very memorable ad campaign to encourage people to enlist using the slogan “Be all you can be,” an exhortation that is better than “What do you want to be when you grow up.” I appreciate the focus on effort and aspiration, without asking you to name a specific career path before you have even finished high school. However, is the pressure of being “all you can be” a bit much for someone your age? If you could quantify aspiration and you only reach 80%, does that mean that your life is somehow lacking in substance and meaning? In this light, this otherwise noble, well-intentioned aspiration presents it own challenges.
What if, instead of asking “What do you want to be when you grow up” or urging you to “be all you can be,” we ask “What kind of person do you want to be when you grow up?”
Several years ago, I heard Adam Grant, management/psychology professor and author of Give and Take, speak at a national conference for school teachers and administrators. I have been carrying his work around in my head ever since and it provided inspiration for me as I thought about what I wanted to say today. In his work, Grant poses the question: “Are you a Giver, a Taker, or a Matcher?” To help us understand these three categories, he imagines three different reactions to the simple question “Can you do me a favor?”
· When asked for a favor, the “Taker” thinks, “What’s in it for me?”
· The “Matcher” thinks, “Will this person pay me back for my assistance?”
· The “Giver,” however, says, “Sure. How can I help?”
After analyzing a range of studies and interviewing people working in a host of professions, Grant argues that Givers are the most accomplished of the three in that they enjoy the most professional and personal satisfaction.
To help characterize “a Giver,” Grant posited a question: “What’s the difference between ‘Will you help?’ and ‘Will you be a helper?’” In Grant’s estimation and hopefully yours, the latter sounds more noble than the former. “Will you help?” sounds like a one-time thing, but being a “helper” is an identity, a character trait that speaks to a pattern of generosity, kindness, and an awareness of others. So, as you think about your actions and the kind of person you want to be, think about the patterns of your positive actions over time, not just the instance of a kind word or a good deed.
The patterns of constructive words and deeds form your public character. By “public character,” I mean what you bring to school and your life each day, how you interact with people in person or digitally. In fact, the strength of our community depends not just on what you think but on what you do.
As we go forward into the new school year, I urge you to consider, “What kind of person do you want to be, now and later?”
I hope you will decide to be more than generous; BE A GIVER.
Be more than helpful; BE A HELPER.
Do more than advocate; BE AN ADVOCATE.
Do more than identify problems; BE A PROBLEM-SOLVER.
Do more than study; BE A SCHOLAR.
And remembering the words that we all know well: “Enter here to be and find a friend,” be more than friendly; BE A FRIEND.
Consider Hackley’s Mission Statement, which “challenges students to grow in character, scholarship, and accomplishment, to offer unreserved effort, and to learn from the varying backgrounds and perspectives in our community and the world.” Embrace character, scholarship, and accomplishment as character traits for life.
My favorite aspiration from Hackley’s Portrait of a Graduate, which grows out of that mission statement, challenges students to think about accomplishment in somewhat unconventional terms. The original question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” would seem to define accomplishment as career success. If, as our Portrait of a Graduate aspires, Hackley graduates can understand accomplishment as “creat(ing) a sense of purpose, orienting talent, service, and actions to transcend individual success,” then it would seem that the right question about your future must be loftier.
So perhaps the better question is “what kind of person do you want to be, now and later?” And your goal for this year and the time you have left in the Upper School should be working to answer that question as you mold your words and deeds in constructive, community-minded ways.