All we ask of American children is to have their lives planned out entirely before they have begun.
As an adult, it seems that the only thing anyone ever asks is “What do you do?”, which is a natural outflow of the question that stalks the collegiate, “what is your major?” In high school, it was “Where do you want to go to college? What do you want to do?” But the pressure starts long before any serious decision-making begins.
As early as Kindergarten, I dreaded the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I’ve always hated coming up with an answer. It presupposes several precepts I entirely oppose.
We provide children with a simple set of possible answers to this question, all of which imply that you are what you do for a living. What “you want to be” is not equivalent with career. We tell children that you can be a fireman, policeman, astronaut, teacher, doctor, dentist, or nurse. Never mind that when we look around our society, most people hold jobs outside of this set of careers. No one mentions sanitation workers. No one extols the accountants. No one talks about mechanics. No one mentions researchers or sales associates.
Naturally then, children are shocked, as I remember being, at seeing the librarian at the grocery store. It’s inconceivable that my teacher has a life outside of the school, much less the need to procure food. Her identity is “teacher” and therefore her life must also be so.
The real reason I dreaded this question at age five, however, was not on high-minded philosophical grounds. I dreaded this question because the answer to it was “I do not know.” And at age five, the only thing I did know was that I always wanted to be the person who knew, who had the right answer, and who was generally thought to be never wrong.
We don’t tell five-year-olds that college faculty (or being the next Martha Stewart) is a career option.
I never felt satisfied with the list of career choices presented to me. In the second grade, I started telling people that I wanted to be a poet and work for the postal service, because I wanted to write and I enjoyed sorting things. I apparently had the good sense, even then, to realize you can’t make a living writing poetry, and this was more than fifteen years before Starbucks reached my hometown, so barista was not an option young me would have known.
It quickly became apparent that this was not an acceptable answer to my parents, my teachers, and my peers. So I faked it. I think I went through a “I want to be a lawyer” phase, and then in early middle school I avoided the question entirely.
Halfway through middle school, I went away to geek camp for three weeks, and took American Theater. My instructor was finishing up her PhD at Penn, and hence came my introduction to the idea of graduate school as a career path. I knew immediately that I wanted to keep going to school for as long as possible, and knew from the age of 14 that the PhD lay before me. In what, I didn’t know, but I understood that you could keep learning and studying, and there was little else I enjoyed more.
Even in high school, the career talk was a source of constant anxiety. In home ec, we wrote letters to colleges asking for information. I decided to request information about journalism and public relations, as I still enjoyed writing. I later decided that I should go with math and science, as I seemed to be good at it. Biology was more fun than chemistry, so biology it was.
I vividly remember the day we did a bacterial transformation experiment in AP Biology. I recall looking at my plate of bacterial colonies for blue-white screening and thinking how amazing it was that we did this experiment and it worked. We changed the color of the colonies. We engineered DNA. I loved it, and I’m still not entirely certain why.
Still, had college applications not asked me for a major, I probably would have been content to explore an endless variety of courses for forever. Thankfully (maybe?), I went to NC State, where I declared a major from day one, but also delcared a second major from day two.
Over the years, I’ve answered endless questions about why I have a BA and a BS, why I spent five years in undergrad, or why I did a degree in the humanities. I’m glad I did it. I think there’s a part of me that needs things other than science to stay sane, that needs to write and read and think. That part of me has been threatened, choked, nearly suffocated over the years.
But it’s back.
I suppose it’s a good thing – after all, reading and writing and thinking critically are important skills in all of life. But more than that, the unilateral assumptions about career that were foisted upon me when I was younger keep fading further and further away.
Let’s say I stay in science. I can’t see myself at the bench forever, so perhaps I could lead a research group at an institute, or even better, as a primary investigator on the faculty at a university. I love the university, and I love education.
I think teaching would be great. While I enjoy “imparting knowledge” mode, what I really love is leading people into the place where they understand that they can learn and can engage the scientific process. I like to see bigger lightswitches than just xyz material turn on.
Dr. Caldwell was right. Young people don’t know just how magnificent they might be. The thing is to help them push away their internal limits, the assumptions they have absorbed from their environments, so that they can even just try to find the ceiling of their capabilities. It’s teaching a man to fish instead of feeding them fish.
So let’s say I didn’t want to stay directly in science. This love of education, of seeing boundaries overcome, could translate well into academic administration. Maybe I’d make a good dean someday.
Of course, I could veer even further off traditional career paths. Policy could be thrilling. Consulting for a law firm? Something new all the time.
I’m 27 years old and I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. But I think I’ve learned what I want to be.
I want to learn every day as much as I teach every day.
I want to be thoughtful.
I want to engage in my community and the world around me.
I want to serve, and lead through my service.
I want to create sustainable plans.
I want to embrace an active lifestyle.
I want to run til I’m old.
I want to respect the dignity of those around me.
I want to respect my own dignity and needs.
I want to love myself and the flaws in myself.
I want to encourage those around me.
I want to love those around me and engage them in a positive manner.
I want to let go of perfectionism and embrace the imperfections.
I want to make a difference.
I want to inspire others to make a difference.
I want to be the kind of person who kayaks in the morning and throws a cocktail party the same night.
Knowing what I want to be and knowing how to go about being it are two entirely different questions, neither answered by
“what do you want to be when you grow up?”