What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up—A Terrible Question.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question I have always hated when used in the occupational sense. Why must four-year-olds around the planet resign their dreams to determine instead how they will make their very existence profitable? Is it not enough to want to be a good person? To have fun?

I find a resilience that I have only observed in the answers given by children. While their answers may satisfy the adult’s question, the meaning behind the child’s answer subverts the question entirely. No young child actually wants to be a doctor, pilot, scientist, engineer, teacher, cook, or veterinarian, at least not in the sense being asked; they want to save patients, fly planes, run experiments, solve problems, teach, cook, and help animals—they don’t want to be but instead want to do. To them, these concepts are the same.

Only later will the child come to know the meaning of being in the adult sense, usually after we beat their dreams from their minds by familiarizing them overtly and covertly with all that goes into being—e.g., prohibitively expensive education, poverty or low wages, grant writing, forgoing doing which is not profitable, etc., —all that stands between any person and their doing.

Sometimes, the question is phrased as, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Yet the answer—I want to be a(n) ____—reveals the damage being done as the question is being asked by the adult asker and as it becomes understood by the askee.

In “when you grow up,” the adult was never actually asking what the child wants to do, which makes some sense, because why should a child wait for adulthood to do anything that can be done in the moment? While I wouldn’t want a child flying my plane or transplanting my heart, why must a child wait to teach? To cook? To speak up and organize around issues they see as needing to be fixed in the world in which they live?

Why is the emphasis on being so exclusive to the context of profession? To keep our society as it is, we need people to be certain sorts of things. To motivate specific types of being, we must introduce being as an end—you can be wealthy, you can be famous, you can be high-status, you can be influential, you can be an entrepreneur by owning the doings of others, you can be successful.

This is how being is framed for children by their inquisitors. At first, these beings–having wealth, having fame, having status, having influence, having ownership–seem indistinguishable from any other forms of being; however, these beings are really better described as havings. They are paired with no actions. If you are a cook, you cook, whereas if you are wealthy, you cannot “do wealth.” The only action that corresponds with wealth is the exercise of Power to change the thoughts and behavior of another. But is that really success?

What does success really mean to you? Would the four-year-old you that wanted to save patients, fly planes, run experiments, solve problems, teach, cook, and help animals agree? Or would they be disappointed to see what has become of their dreams? Make your (former) self proud—it’s not too late.

Henry Merrilees