“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It’s such an innocent question. You might even say it’s aspirational. What could possibly be wrong with asking a kid what they want to be when they grow up?
A lot, actually.
1. You’re not supposed to know.
It’s crazy to me that we start asking kids this question when they’re in elementary school. And then we keep asking, year after year. By the time they’re in high school, it’s a very serious question. Many students feel like there’s something wrong with them if they don’t have a definitive answer.
I, for one, rejected this question outright as a 9th grader. That year, we were all forced to take a semester-long career-planning course. We took bogus personality tests (Here’s a quick video about how personality tests are mostly nonsense.) and oversimplified aptitude tests to determine what careers we would be best at. And then we were supposed to job shadow someone in our chosen field. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career, and none of the things recommended by the tests seemed appealing. But I was quite sure I didn’t want to spend the day in an office doing “grown up” things, so I job shadowed ski patrol.
Obviously, I could have gotten more out of the opportunity than I chose to. There is value in exploring different career options in middle school and high school. Perhaps if the career unit had been framed more as an exploration and less as a determination, I would have responded better.
2. You don’t have to wait.
The flip side of this is, if you do already know, you don’t have to wait until you’re “grown up.” You can begin right now! You don’t have to wait for adulthood to pursue your dreams, invent, create, discover, and contribute to the world. Here’s a collection of TED Talks from some amazing kids who aren’t waiting.
By implying that you have to wait until you cross some mystical threshold before you can do meaningful work, this question actively inhibits ambitious kids who want to tinker, start a business, make art, or do science.
3. You’ll never be “grown up.”
Oh yeah, and that mystical threshold of adulthood – it doesn’t exist.
Many young people believe that their struggles with procrastination and executive function will just evaporate the day they turn 18, 21, 25, or 30 – the deadline keeps getting pushed back the older you get, until one day, you realize that you’re an adult and nothing has changed. You’re still tempted to procrastinate. You still struggle with bad habits. You’re still disorganized.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” supports this unhelpful belief. It encourages teenagers and young adults to avoid doing the work of strategically cultivating willpower, and it makes kids dismissive of organizational strategies. Instead of fostering this unhelpful mindset, we should be telling young people the truth – that growing up doesn’t happen automatically, that nothing but your own efforts will cause you to change, that you have to make your own motivation.
4. You’re never going to be a finished product.
Despite the supposedly aspirational nature of the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question, it’s actually a very fixed-minded way of thinking about your future. It suggests that you will choose a single career, train for it, and then do it for the rest of your life. Once you complete your degree or apprenticeship for your chosen job, you’re done. No more learning, no more growing.
It is from this mentality of “done” that students gripe about school subjects that they’ll “never use in real life” – a complaint that misses entirely the actual purpose of school. It would be far better to encourage students to adopt a growth mindset, encourage their curiosity, and make it clear to them that continuous learning will be a mandatory feature of adulthood.
5. You won’t get to be just one thing.
A long time ago, you might have been able to get away with training for a single career – a farmer, a blacksmith, etc. – but now the world changes too quickly. Most people have to change careers several times, and even people who stay in one career have to constantly retrain and retool in order to keep up with innovation.
Furthermore, there are jobs we can’t even imagine yet that will come into existence as the current generation of students progresses through adulthood. If you asked a kid growing up in the 90’s what she wanted to do for a living, she could not have possibly replied, “I want to be a smartphone app developer.” But that could very well be what she’s doing right now.
And even if you could somehow manage to stay in the same career your whole life and miraculously avoid the need to retrain in order to keep up with our ever-changing world, would you want to? Would you actually want that life? It sounds dreadfully boring to me.
Again, the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question falls short, implying that you have to choose a single career. This is a false choice. You can do many things.
6. You’re not your job.
This question also places too much emphasis on career. For people with prestigious careers, this bogus narrative is a source of overblown pride: “My son is a doctor.” Or for people with less prestigious careers, it’s a source of shame: “Oh, I’m just a barista.” People are more than their job titles. They are complicated, dynamic human beings.
Maybe you want to be an architect when you grow up, but you also want to travel, play guitar, climb mountains, volunteer, and raise a family. We ask the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question expecting one answer, but it’s ridiculous to have just one answer. How unimaginative is it to envision a future dominated by a single activity or a single identity?
7. You won’t be satisfied with just one thing.
To understand what it takes to live a satisfying life, I like to use this diagram:
But it’s a mistake to think that you’ll find a singular activity or career that fulfills the four requirements. More likely, you’ll need to approach this pursuit via multiple avenues – jobs, hobbies, volunteering, etc. And, if you work your way toward the center, you can cultivate multiple Ikigais. Click here to learn more about how to use the Ikigai concept to live a more satisfying life.
In an effort to be more than just a critic, here are some better questions you can ask to replace “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
What are some of the things you’d like to do, experience, or accomplish in your life?
What jobs do you think are common now that won’t exist in the future? What jobs that don’t exist now might come into being?
What kinds of things do you enjoy learning? What are you curious about?
What types of projects and puzzles interest you?
Is there anything you’d like to try or experience before you go to college? How can I support that?
What are some of the problems facing our world that you might like to help solve? How can you get involved right now?
And really, the right move probably isn’t a formulaic question. The right move is a broad, open-ended conversation. A conversation that acknowledges the uncertainty of the future. A conversation that doesn’t need to arrive at definite conclusions. A conversation that is truly and imaginatively aspirational.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.