Do you remember when you were in kindergarten and your teacher would ask you what you wanted to be when you grew up? Because I do. At five years old, I was already being trained to think ahead - years into the future - and decide who I was and what I wanted to be. Now, that is a lot of pressure to put on someone who can’t even tie their shoes yet. The question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” is implanted into children's brains at such a young age, developed through childhood and adolescence, and almost programs us to live in the future. I am someone who does this, who is always thinking about what I want to do when I grow up or what I want to be - what my life could look like one day. I am always thinking in the future tense and because of this, I have lost sight of the present moment. This connection has made me wonder: instead of asking others what they want to be when they grow up, what if we were to ask them what they want to be now?
When I was five, I wanted to be a princess. I loved Disney movies and would wear my sparkly, blue Cinderella dress anytime I could. I dreamed of castles and magical fairy godmothers and Prince Charmings (of course). Princesses are kind, and brave, and beautiful on the inside and out, and that is what I wanted to be. And then I told someone about it, and they said “But you can’t really be a princess when you grow up. What do you actually want to be?” and my dreams were crushed. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be a princess or why their opinion held more power over mine. At that moment, I wanted to be a princess and who’s to say I couldn’t be? This question then changed my entire perspective on the concept of time - that I couldn’t be something now but instead I had to work towards being something in the future. Naturally, as I grew up, I began thinking ahead into the future more and more - about my playdate at a friend’s house on the weekend, Christmas vacation in six months, or even as far ahead as my high school graduation (which High School Musical 3 hyped up way too much). At five, I was already dreaming of being a teenager, and now I am starting to dream I could be a kid again.
What do you want to be when you grow up? Notice how it says to be and not do? But yet, children and teenagers will still respond with a career path. I think this question needs to change or at least be deconstructed. Instead of answering with an occupation, wouldn’t it be nice to hear a five-year-old say “I want to be kind” or “I want to be happy?” You see, it is important to teach children to dream big and create goals for themselves, but what happens when a child sets their mind on a career that just isn’t obtainable? What happens to their views on identity and worth when a career is all they’ve known to be defined by?
Psychologist, Adam Grant, said it best in this article by the New York Times: “When we define ourselves by jobs, our worth depends on what we achieve.” The question makes people associate identity solely with work, which just isn’t right. Our identities are made up of so much more than the job title on our resumes, the labels society gives us, or how much time we spend leading up to the next thing, whatever it may be. We deserve to live and do as we please, exploring the beauty of the process of living and loving others, regardless of the pressure to know everything all at once.
I struggled a lot in high school. I was constantly overthinking, worried about my future, and disassociated from reality. At the time, I felt I was disappointing my younger self - the girl who wanted to take on the world and do everything and be perfect at everything. I guess I just realized that that dream wasn’t realistic for me and I began to feel very burnt out. Nonetheless, I still worked hard, received good grades, and got into a nice school. By my senior year, I was one of the top graduating students in my class, yet I still felt unfulfilled. Looking back now, I realize this is because I spent too much time in the future rather than the present moment. I would be at a school dance or a sports game (or even just the lunch table) and even though I was there physically, my mind was never present - I was always somewhere else, someplace more exciting than where I was at the time. I feel sorry for my younger self and I have learned so much since then. When you lose sight of the present moment, you lose sight of yourself too. I realize now that I was missing a huge part of my identity - all the curiosity, creativity, and confidence that I had as a child was all of a sudden, gone. I stumbled into a dark abyss just me, myself, and the countless anxious thoughts that occupied my mind. It took awhile to get out of that headspace, but here I am, slowly finding my inner child that was once lost.
I still have moments - moments where I find myself 5, 10, 15 years in the future imagining different scenarios and possible careers. But I have learned that there are different ways of thinking about the future. Instead of asking myself what I want to do, I ask myself what I am going to be, feel, give, learn, etc. Wanting something and actually achieving it are two very different things. I could want to be a successful businesswoman but if I don’t put in the effort and the work then I am not going to get anywhere. I also think it is important for us to answer these questions without a focus on a career. At the end of the day, who you are matters, and the job description on your resume does not define you as a whole. It is your feelings, thoughts, and characteristics that define you as a person. Now, when asked what I would like to be when I grow up, I would answer with something along the lines of “present.” It is so important for me that I live in the moment more. I truly never know when my life will come to an end. I’d rather spend it living each day as if it’s my last than spend it worrying about what I am going to do tomorrow, or the next day, or the one after that. I must ask myself who and what I want to be in this moment, when it really matters.
Dr. Sheila Boyson has another way of changing the question. In a TED Talk at Lewis University, she explains, “Instead of asking what do you want to be when you grow up? Let’s ask, what mark do you want to leave? What impact do you want to have? What challenges do you want to solve?”
We are worth more than the occupation on our resume and our well being should take priority over capitalistic practices. It is not what we do that defines us but who we are. It is about the challenges we face and it is how we go about solving those challenges that tells people of our character. It is about passion, innovation, and changing the way we think about the world to better it for ourselves. Truth is, there is no date on which we have grown up. I am 18 and therefore, technically an adult, however, I am still constantly learning, changing, and growing. I am someone who has more than one interest and is passionate about multiple subjects and therefore hopes to pursue a wide variety of careers. And that is what I am going to do. When I grow up I am going to be creative, kind, hardworking, and passionate. I am going to follow my dreams even and especially when people tell me I can’t. I am going to prove them wrong. I am going to be curious, creative, and confident. I am going to live in the present moment and not worry if I am disappointing my younger or future selves. Because they are proud of me. They are proud of me because despite living in a world that is so career-driven, I still care about the things that truly matter - the things that make me who I am - in this very moment. Right here, right now (that’s a song in High School Musical 3, I guess the movie wasn’t entirely inaccurate.)