Stop Asking People What They Want To Be When They Grow Up

It’s Damaging, Limiting and We Can Do Better

Our culture has conditioned us to grow up wanting to be something. All through elementary school we’re asked (almost jokingly because it’s such a cute question for some reason,) “What do you want to be be when you grow up?”

Then in middle school there’s some real-world simulation research project where you “seriously” look into what you want to be when you grow up. You look up the salary and the steps to get there, the job description, and you get a pat on the back from your teachers for a job well done, and sometimes a project like that even scares teenagers out of wanting to be an astronaut or a pilot or a singer.

The question only gets heavier the older you get. Towards the end of high school, it morphs into “What do you want to study?” because high school is all about getting into college (and college is all about getting a job… right?)

College hits and the question arises again, this time in many different forms. “What are you studying?” Followed by, “And what do you want to do with that?” And then there’s,“What are you going to do when you graduate?” and my personal favorite, “So what are you going to do with that expensive degree you got?!”

I have a couple different issues with this question, the main one being that it’s so narrow.

Our answers are only as good as the question allows, and just like asking a “yes” or “no” question, this one doesn’t give much room for variation in response. Asking a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” already significantly limits the possible responses, because think of how a child arrives at his/her answer. They mentally run through a list of jobs they are familiar with or have been exposed to, and choose from there. But what about all of the other jobs that might suit them, even be begging to be done by them that they will never think of or have a chance to explore because we are so busy locking them into traditional occupations?

And this isn’t only a child’s way of thinking.

It’s most of ours, too.

Most of us when considering college and career plans do so with a finite list of options. To some extent, this is our fault as a society, because we’ve lived in such a traditional occupation-focused world for so long.

But the times they are a’ changin’ and so should our mindset about careers.

That change starts with asking a different question, because while, yes, it is partly due to societal functions and mentalities, it is also the question that is at fault for our limited thinking. If you ask someone what they want to be, they must respond with a thing (typically a single thing) and most of us don’t choose things we’ve never seen or heard of. This means our list of possible responses is extremely finite. We don’t feel at liberty to answer with multiple things or imagined careers, and it’s impossible for us to respond with a career that exists but that we’ve never heard of!

Understanding this calmed my own anxieties around that question tremendously. When I saw how pigeonholing that question was (and had been all my life) I began to think larger and imagine things beyond the finite list of careers I had previously been using to decide “what” I wanted to “be” when I grew up. When it occurred to me that the “job” for me might be out there, it just might be something I had never heard of or seen done, I felt free to explore routes without needing to see a clear end in sight. I did things that brought me joy, that impacted and influenced others, and I looked for ways to show up in places where the world was in need of someone to show up.

What if we taught kids that they could be a firefighter or a teacher if they wanted, but they could also fix cars and coach Karate and dance (all at the same time) too?

What if we changed our mindset from trying to make ourselves fit into a job, to trying to make a job that fit ourselves?

We have to understand that each of our purposes and paths to fulfillment are unique, and we have to trust that we will get there when we are brave enough to honor who we are.

We cannot keep reinforcing the belief that all of us will succeed and be happy in a traditional career path, because it makes those of us who don’t find fulfillment there feel like failures, like we’ve done something wrong. Instead, we need to promote the truth — to children and adults alike — that the path to fulfillment is simply to be true to who you are and use your uniqueness to serve the world in some way.

There is no way we can teach that if we continue asking and wondering “What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to do with that degree?” Especially when those questions innately limit our responses.

We’ve got to change the question if we want to be able to change the answer.

What if we asked, “Who do you want to be?” and “What do you want to do?” For me, those questions seem overwhelming in a new, good way, because they radiate possibility! I don’t know what I want to be, or even if I will ever be something at all, but I do know who I want to be (most days) and I feel much more at liberty to search for who I am than to search for a career.

I want to be someone who helps people move into places of new, rich, deep knowledge. I want to be a part of people’s journeys. I want to be someone who can write and create every single day. I want to be approachable and thought provoking. I want to be a person who has the opportunity to meet new people all the time. I really just want to be me, and I think that’s true for all of us. It’s a shame we let our identities not only take a backseat to our careers, but actually let our careers become our identities.

So many of us are struggling with the same post-college questions, and we’re continually coming up empty for 2 mistakes:

1) We’re asking the wrong question.

2) We think our careers have to already exist.

I think we need to be asking a different question — to children, to teenagers, to college students, and to post-college grads like me who are still out searching for their place in the world and where that overlaps with a career.

WHO do YOU want to be?