How many times have you had this question asked of you, and do you enjoy answering it? There’s a time in our lives when most of us actually did find this question an interesting one to answer and were happy to do so. However once we turned 9 or so…
Have you ever wondered why this question is popular? It’s related very much to another question often asked, “So, what do you do for a living?” Both questions are designed to allow the person asking it to mentally categorize you. It’s part of your identity, and it’s how others identify you. “Jim? Oh yes the plumber chap”. “So did you hear? Jessica is a teacher now!”
How we feel about Jim and Jessica is influenced by what we think of plumbers and teachers. Without knowing any more information, we almost certainly start making some value judgements about them based on our view of their profession. The question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, is going to give the person asking some framework to categorize you just like the other question. The real kicker for the person asking the question is when you reply with some vague response akin to, “I haven’t quite decided”, or “I dunno”; the pre-adult classic. They can’t categorize you.
Of course the question itself tends to trap the person being asked into a single response. I mean when asked what they want to be when they grow up, no one answers, “Well, I’d like to explore around a bit, do a little woodwork for a couple of years, go back to school for photography but then decide it’s more of a hobby really, drop out, then work in an office for 7 or 8 years, buy my own car wash, then eventually end up a late bloomer in the photo journalism field. Oh and I’d like to have a smashing good time with a number of ladies not one of which I plan to settle down with really. I may even father a child somewhere along the way.”
Aunt Edna might have nothing to say after that answer, and decide it’s best not to ask in the future either. It will however give her plenty of fodder to fill up the knitting circles for weeks to come, or conversely silence her completely when asked about you. You see for Aunt Edna’s friends, her reputation is associated with yours. If you’re successful, by association her status rises. If you’re unemployed and living rough, well…best we don’t tell her friends shall we?
The question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” also implies two things; one you haven’t grown up yet and two, what you want to be is something other than that which you are at present. In fact what you are at present must be somehow juvenile; the ‘growing up’ hasn’t finished. When it does, you’ll ‘be’ something other than what you ‘are’ now.
In previous historical periods, a person grew into a single profession and their family name in some cultures was defined by the job. Hence the Millers, Carvers, Masons and the Weavers. Say the name and their profession was known without asking. In 2015 however, our surname at birth doesn’t limit most of us in any way nor pre-determine what our future will be.
Some people I imagine would like things to be as they were. It would for some be ideal to just be told or expected to get into a line of work without the pressure of having to decide. For the majority of people I suspect however, the freedom of choice is sometimes confusing but still much more desirable; as is the freedom to change professions at any time.
Seemingly having to have it all figured out in your high school years in order to choose the right College or University and launch your career comes with immense pressure. I mean by 16 or 17 years of age, you’ve only had exposure to a very limited number of people in your life. Many of those people do the same jobs, and you’re so self-absorbed in your own world, you’ve probably very little sincere interest in what others do, and haven’t really ever sat down with them to find out. Most teens I know only have a superficial idea at best of what their parents do for a living let alone others.
So with limited exposure, how then are you to settle in on the right University or College courses that are going to lead to a career or job which you will find fulfilling later? Your own brain is still evolving, your likes and dislikes are still being shaped, and you’ll find as you grow you meet people doing things you don’t even know exist at present. Not to mention some things you find tedious now may suddenly become appealing later. You might be setting yourself up for anxiety if you want to change careers mid-school and somehow disappoint the family, or ‘waste’ the money.
So what’s the answer? Generally speaking; (for there is no one answer for all) it’s good advice to do a great many things when you are young. Try things. Talk with people. Observe. Let the next 45 years of your life evolve. Plan for the next 3. Make mistakes. Learn. Make more mistakes. Learn some more. Most people change careers 3 times and have 8 or 9 jobs over their lifetime. Ease up on the self-inflicted stress to have it all figured out at 17.