When I Grow Up…

e.e. cummings

What do you want to be when you grow up?

We ask kids this all the time. We don’t ask: What are you good at? What do you enjoy? What speaks to you? What job do you want to do? What occupation might fulfill you or make you happy? What job do you think you would be good at? What do you want to be doing for the bulk of your days?

No, we don’t ask any of those questions, but we ask what do you want to be?

It’s no wonder so many people encounter some sort of identity crisis at some point in their lives. We’re setting people up at an early age by using the words, “What do you want to be?”–we’re tying a job, a set of duties, day-to-day activities, a paycheck, to who a person is. That’s powerful stuff.

And we tend to project characteristics of an occupation onto an individual–we assume priests are kind, good, trustworthy, and honest people. We assume pimps are generally not. We groom children for careers, and what those careers might say about you. Our careers become so much a part of who we are, what we identify with. One of the first questions commonly asked at parties is, “What do you do?” Doctors are smart, salespeople are personable, accountants are careful. There’s a lot of assumptions and judgments about your personality and lifestyle wrapped up in one word. The successes or failures of our careers and career choices oftentimes determine how people view us, and subsequently our own self-worth.

This becomes problematic when, as all things that go up always do–career trajectories must come down. Life never unfolds in a linear fashion. We have ups and downs. Life isn’t fair. We don’t all get promotions and bonuses for a job well done or for hard work. We don’t always get our just rewards. That really messes with our sense of self, and our sense of justice in the world. Depression sets in when you feel like you’re not providing for your family enough, or if you haven’t been promoted yet. You begin to question yourself.

Then there are times when we just don’t know what we want to do next in life. We may want to do so many things, both professionally and personally. Or we might not have any idea what we want to do at all. But through society’s message, we believe our career choices determine our self-worth and who we are. That’s a lot of pressure. One mistake, and well, I don’t even want to know. Anxiety paralyzes you, and then the depression sets in.

This is where we have it all wrong. You know I believe words have meaning, and we need to choose and use our words wisely. Let’s look at the definition of a career:
-a job or profession that someone does for a long time
Notice there’s nothing about a career being who you are. It doesn’t say anything about the character of your being, or your work ethic, or your interests, or your compassion, or your resiliency, or your humor.

Now what about this second definition?
-a profession for which one trains and which is undertaken as a permanent calling

Why don’t we train for jobs that resonate with us, that we enjoy, that we’re good at, that pays the bills, that allows you to feed all the different parts of who we are? And why don’t we think long and hard about who we want to be when we grow up? Why aren’t we asking our children these questions?

I used to say even in my 30s, and as I turned 40, that I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. But I do know. I want to be kind and compassionate and grateful when I grow up. I want to enjoy my life as I grow up. I want to make a difference in this world when I grow up.

I asked my kids what they want to do when they grow up. The Boy wants to be a horseback riding instructor, or an Olympic equestrian, or anything that remotely has anything to do with horses. He wants to enjoy his life with what resonates with him. La Chica wants to be a teacher–of ballet, or math, or Rainbow Looms, or any subject matter quite frankly. Or a babysitter or daycare provider. When asked why so many options, she says she just wants to take care of people, she just wants to love people.

Those are great career goals–what a permanent calling to have: to take care of people, to love people, to enjoy life. So long as they can pay their bills, I think being joyful and spreading love are the right goals in life. There’s no way you can have an identity crisis with that.

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12 Responses to When I Grow Up…

  1. ♡eM says:

    And to think, this is how people’s names came to be. Miller. Baker. Smith. I suppose something we spend most of our waking hours doing for most of our lives would shape us, in some ways.

    Your post is an insightful reminder that we are who we are, not what we do. Thank you.

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    • Oh wow, I LOVE that reminder!! Yes indeed, our surnames form our professions. Yes, yes, and yes. That really reinforces for me this idea, that i want my children to be kind and loving before a straight-A student. I feel this internally, but demonstrate my ambivalence as I get caught up in the real world of competition and my upbringing. This will really help me stay focused. Thank you!!

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      • ♡eM says:

        I know, the real world hasn’t yet caught up with what we believe is most important, being a compassion, kind, loving human. I just remind my little loves that “who we are” trumps the rest. The rest is all good, including goals and achievement toward those goals, jobs and careers, and the good life in general. But I think that when we are who we want to be, the rest turns out just as well. It’s such a tricky thing, life. We want to be and do so much. And for such good reasons.

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  2. SBB says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post. I will certainly choose my words and questions more carefully as I try to understand my young children’s passions. WHO we want to be is so much more important than WHAT we want to be.

    P.S. You truly ARE compassionate and grateful, and you do make a difference. For this, I thank you and love you.

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    • Ah, I have my moments 🙂 I’ve come to realize the importance of words, and how it’s so important to be mindful of how we speak to one another, and what we say. And don’t say. Love you always!

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  3. Val Boyko says:

    Thank you sharing this insight into words and how they create expectations. It reminds me of the quote from John Lennon.“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
    You are in good company 🙂

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    • 🙂 Thank you!! I remember telling my parents when I was younger that I just wanted to be happy. As Asian immigrants, they literally could not comprehend that idea. They still shake their heads in disbelief!
      My last performance evaluation with my supervisor had her asking where I see myself in 5 years, and I simply said I just want to love what I’m doing, enjoy who I work with, and make a difference in the world…that wasn’t quite the answer she was looking for!

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  4. JunkChuck says:

    I’m 47–I guess it’s time for me to figure out what I want to do when I grow up–but I am, with some work still in progress, what I want to be. Your kids sound like they know what they’re doing.

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    • It is wonderful to hear you say you are who you want to be!! I’d say then you’re quite successful! Eh, I am understanding as I age that “what we do” is less important than how we manage to live our lives in ways that resonate with each of us, fills us, makes us happy, and pays the bills–affords us to live the life we want whether it’s purchasing things or traveling or having the flexibility to spend time with people/doing activities you enjoy. And my “jobs/career” have evolved through time, but underlying it all they’ve drawn from my strengths and passions. Yet I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. No longer so pressed about it! 🙂

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  5. Some amazing insights you have eloquently conveyed here. I totally agree that we are more than what our accomplishes or choices in life are (personally and professionally) and we’re going to make mistakes and/or have some failures along the way, such is life. I’m also learning that the opinions and critical judgments from others are becoming far less important along this journey.

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