What do you want to be when you grow up?
How often were you asked that question as a child? How did you respond?
Adults still ask kids this question, mostly because they don’t know what else to say. They find themselves at a family gathering with nieces and nephews running around and try to make conversation. Children’s answers are often predictable: a firefighter, a gymnast, a superhero. It’s unique for a child to declare their desired vocation and then actually go on to follow that path (especially, the superheroes). Though, it’s also unlikely they will someday have careers that they love. Currently, 53 percent of Americans in the workforce are unhappy with their jobs, and 33 percent are simply bored — facts that lead me to believe we might be asking kids the wrong question.
I absolutely hated it when adults asked me what I wanted to be as a child. Though I never had the courage to say it aloud, I’d think, “Are you happy with what you are doing in life?” From what I observed, I guessed the answer was no. The general assumption is that young adults will pursue a career doing something that agrees with their skillset, pursuing a field that perhaps even bores them because it’s a financially wise decision. It’s an added bonus if you actually enjoy your job.
So, what makes people feel fulfilled by what they do? One non-profit, called 80,000 Hours, listed the top six things that make a job fulfilling. They are:
Take a look at that last point: It helps others. How many times did your high school career counselor ask you how your career ambitions would help others? I’ll tell you how many times mine did: zero.
Kabbalists teach that we come to this life for a very important reason — that is, to make the world a better place. If this is true (and I believe with my whole heart that it is), why aren’t we encouraging our children to consider this early on? Many of my students found the wisdom of Kabbalah after a deep sense that they were not fulfilling their highest purpose in life. Their careers or lifestyles didn’t seem to hold meaning until they started asking themselves how they could be of service and effect positive change in the world. This is especially true in high-powered, high-earning jobs. As Rav Berg points out, “We have lost sight of the true purpose of our existence on this physical level because the Desire to Receive has become more real to us than the Light, which is the Desire to Impart.”
Asking a child what they want to be when they grow up is limiting, for as we grow, so too do our desires and interests. For a teen, it can be quite terrifying. It gives them the impression they must choose one vocation for life — an incredibly disheartening prospect. It places too much pressure on them to have everything figured out. According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American will hold 11.7 different jobs in their lifetime. It is highly unlikely that any one of us will stick to a single career. That being said, would it not be more prudent to follow a path inspired by one’s vision for the world and desire to share, than one defined by a specific profession?
The question that should really be asked of children (and all of us!) is: who do we want to become when we grow up? Instead of focusing on the what, perhaps we can ask our children about the how and the why — How do you want to make the world better? Why is this important to you?
Families, communities, and cultures often place too great a focus on what is not important, and not enough emphasis on what is. Asking a child what they want to be teaches them about what society values and what others believe is possible, rather than prompting them to think outside the box - imagine a better world, and then work toward that ideal. Adults hold an incredible amount of influence over children and can unintentionally send detrimental messages about their futures.
Today, I dare anyone to ask me what I want to be when I grow up. Now, I love that question because I am always changing and growing. I don’t believe I’ve already become what I am meant to become in this lifetime. By keeping my mindset on how to live out my core values and why I am sharing so actively with others, I know I will get there someday. I have a deep appreciation for the process that will lead me to my highest purpose.
The other day, my neighbor emailed me to ask if I happen to have a child-sized tool belt. She was assembling a costume for her daughter, who was tasked with dressing as the person she wanted to be when she grew up for Career Day at school. For many days she simply didn’t know what she wanted to be. When her mother reframed the question to, “How do you want to change the world?” she had an answer. That superstar of a seven-year-old wants to build houses for homeless people when she grows up. There’s a child with a vision, and it is not about being; it is about doing.
Turn to the child in your life and ask them the same question. And, while you’re at it, go ahead and ask yourself.