As the dreaded back to school approaches, we all recall being asked every year what we wanted be when we grew up. And every kid is gonna get asked that a million times this year. And the answers usually are:
For girls: teacher, artist
For boys: policeman, fireman
There is nothing wrong with these answers. The problem is that it is absolutely absurd to expect kids to know what they want to do to with their lives as adults. Now, I know…I know the objection: the question is just to get them to start thinking about the future and realize that they are going to be adults one day and need to work or do something.
But here are a few reasons why it’s counter-productive to treat the “What do you want to be?” question with so much gravity:
1. Kids have no idea. The responses to the question usually only reflect the professions they have been exposed to in their life. This is why most girls say “teacher.” That’s not a terrible problem, but it makes the exercise kind of pointless. Kids already see the professions they encounter in daily life. Asking them what they want to be doesn’t really stimulate extra thoughts.
2. Happiness at a job depends more on work environment than job title. Now here is a truth at no one ever tells children, but we all learn it as soon as we’ve had our first job. Colleagues and company culture are usually much more significant in determining if we enjoy our time working than what we actually do.
3. It’s misleading. We tell kids to find their passion, focus on art, music, dance and the like. Then, when they graduate high school or college and can’t find a job, adults turn around and say: “Well, what did you expect? It’s the real world!” The truth is most people work in an office with some sort of meaningless title. And we expect graduates not to be disappointed. No wonder post-college blues is a thing.
Despite this, we should be encouraging everyone to pursue their passions as a way of life, not just as a job. It’s true that not a lot of people can make a living by just being an artist, but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t bother creating art. (See #3)
4. It equates being with profession. When we ask kids what they want to “be” and then expect them to answer with job titles, we are saying that their personhood is the same as their job title. That’s not good. Lots of people are stuck in jobs that don’t like or flat out hate. But the thing is, we need good garbage men, truck drivers and other unfashionable jobs. We should not be shaming or exalting people simply because of their employer. We should be looking at the way a person lives his life, his virtues, his love. Now of course, some jobs take a lot of training to get to, such as doctors, and that level of work is itself worthy of respect. But this is really an indication of virtue. And honestly, not every member of respected professions is necessarily a good person.
Plus, most of us take office jobs and don’t become DJs, television personalities, actors, singers, painters and dancers. Some of us will leave the working world entirely (ie stay at home moms). So what then? Does that mean our life is meaningless or sad? Of course not! Our life and our being are about a lot more than our job. Jobs matter because we have to spend so much time doing it, but being a good person is so much more important than being a CEO.
We need to teach kids they have value and that their life can be fulfilling, passionate and good no matter what their job title is. (caveat: the job itself can’t be immoral…such as abortion doctor).
5. Kids are going to find their passion just by living. We need to encourage them to engage in creative, meaningful tasks now and everyday so that it becomes part of their life. We shouldn’t tell people that their life is suddenly go to become good the day they land the dream job. No, life is good everyday. So we should cultivate deep, focused activity today and not the idea of waiting for the perfect job. *Psst secret: awesome jobs tend to grow naturally out of the activities we do and the people we meet doing it*
What did you answer as a kid to the “What do you want to be?” question? Is that what you are doing now? Where does joy come from? Is it in a job? Sometimes? Always? Never?