What Are You When You Grow Up?
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Don’t answer that.
You can spend a lifetime chasing after that question. Landing on something, asking if it’s right…wondering if you’ve made a mistake. Deciding to wait, stay, or try something else.
The five-year-old son of a friend came home the other day distressed.
My friend said, “What’s wrong?”
The crestfallen child admitted, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.”
As kids and teenagers, we hear things like:
You’re so great at that—you should be a [salesman, pilot, singer, investor, etc.] when you grow up!
The implicit message is that we should strive to make a living off what we’re good at. But we humans can be good at a lot of things. And there are a lot of things to be good at.
It’s easy to be good, less easy to be fulfilled.
When we commit to certain paths, we are committing to eschew infinite others.
Most of us don’t get a good idea of who we are until we’re at least into our twenties. But beliefs we have about ourselves often take shape before then. The decisions we’ve made based on those early-formed beliefs should be inspected often to see if they still hold true.
“Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.”
–Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, sung by Baz Luhrmann in Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)
In my youth, I was told I should pursue singing because I was a good singer. This advice lodged itself in my mind as truth, probably because adults were saying it. For years I half-heartedly pursued music thinking I was “supposed” to make use of the gift.
Since I’d been told I was great on stage, I also gave acting a try. I’m great at talking about food, so I was a foodie for a few years.
I finally accepted I just didn’t love those things enough. I liked them, but not enough. I would still be doing one of them if so.
Nobody ever told me I should be a writer and I never thought it was possible. Eventually, I reconsidered–I was lucky. Most people think it’s too late to pivot when they’re 30. Many people think it’s too late when they’re 20.
It’s never too late.
Angela Duckworth advises not to ask “What do I want to be when I grow up?” but instead, “In what way do I wish the world were different? What problem can I help solve?”
Essentially: “How can I be of service?” But that’s missing something. The question should be:
How can I be of service while enjoying myself?
Life is too short not to enjoy the way you spend time. More importantly, if you don’t enjoy yourself, you’re probably not being very useful.
I’m not being kumbaya, it’s true: being of service will make you feel good. It makes us feel valuable, powerful, and useful. It gives meaning to our actions; we all know how empty it feels to spend hours (or lifetimes) on something where the end goal is profit.
Think of life as a bank that deals in good and bad feelings. You are the investor and the currency. When you contribute to good, you are part of the resulting growth, and you feel bigger. When you take away from good, you are part of the loss, and you feel smaller.
Or maybe you sit in limbo adding and taking nothing. Maybe that’s worse.
Aim to be a net-addition. You don’t have to save the earth. You don’t have to rescue orphans. I’ve never felt so valuable as when someone says “thank you for writing that.”
There is no when you grow up. You are what you are right now.
Is it worth it?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. What did you want to be when you grew up? Did it change? Did you stick with it? How do you feel now?
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