If I had one wish it would be for a giant ping-pong paddle. And I would use that it to slap every person across the face who ever asked a child “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It is a sick game we play as adults.
It is a malicious question.
What we want is for the child to say something grand and know it is virtually unobtainable. We can bask in the innocent idiocy of the youth. It makes us feel good for a moment.
The harm it does to the child is inexcusable.
Memory is a funny thing so I don’t know if this is real or a story I made up…
I remember saying that I wanted to be a fire truck. Not the guy carrying the hose. An actual fire truck. Metal and rubber.
I would assume that many of you might be thinking “haha. Silly boy.” Or some variation.
But upon reflecting on my potentially hypothetical memory, what an absurd question to ask a child.
When I was in my early twenties I wanted to be in a punk rock band. A successful one that might be able to cover the rent without subsidies from my bartending job was preferable. Well, that didn’t work out and I ended up running an advertising agency a decade later. Is this what I will be doing in twenty years: probably not.
What no one told me or perhaps convinced me of, was that I was going to get older. Full transparency: I’m not sure how to convince anyone of that, especially the young.
Explaining to a teenager that one day as you get close to 40, your middle toes will hurt for no reason… didn’t kick a rock or jump from a plane… shit just hurts for no reason and that’s part of it and it never gets better again. Sure the toes will stop hurting, but overall… it’s all downhill… and then you die. It doesn’t work. It won’t resonate.
I laughed at all the old hippies who took corporate jobs…
“Fuck da man!”
And a decade later: I am the man.
(If you found yourself asking “what the hell is he blabbering on about?”… you’re not alone. I just thought “what the hell am I blabbering on about…”
So stop asking what kids want to be when they grow up.
Tonight a friend shared her story of how she got her [insert super scientific word] associates degree, then her [more scientific word] bachelor’s, then her [mutli word scientific] advanced degree, then a doctorate in super science thing… and anyway now she runs my alma mater.
People change. Passions change.
You get older and realize that a torn-up shirt safety pinned back together is hard to pull off at 40.
But what most people don’t understand is the psychological trauma of “what do you want to be when you grow up”.
“I don’t know what I want to do when I graduate” is the most common and most gut-wrenching thing I hear from college students. It is said with the same level of enthusiasm as the losing Super Bowl team’s post-interview.
They feel like failures. Because we have been asking dumb questions and expecting them to know the answer.
“That’s so cool!” I tell them. “Most of the most interesting 50-year-olds I know don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. Hell, I don’t know what I want to be.”
“But you run a company” or some iteration of that is what I usually get.
“Yeah for now. But someday I think I wanna teach or be a park ranger.”
You can really trip a kid out when they find out that they aren’t alone. That it’s okay to not be okay with what you’re currently doing. That not having it “all planned out” is normal.
That sort of understanding is a gift. It is a gift to know that we’re all floating through this existence and none of us have the answers. It is a gift to know that you’re not alone.
So what is the alternative?
Perhaps instead of asking “what do you want to be?” We ask them what problems they want to solve. I’m not the first to suggest this and have clearly ripped off ideas from notable scholars on the subject, but seriously how cool is that?
You’ve got a young person who shows an interest in a subject and despite our limited knowledge of the subject we can at a minimum point them to sources to deeper their understanding. I don’t know if that’s “the Lord’s work” but that seems a hell of a lot more productive as a society than snickering over my ambitions to be a fire truck… ’cause it would have been awesome.