Sometime within the past 10 years, I can’t really pinpoint when exactly, people stopped asking me “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s not that these people stopped being interested, as evidenced by the endless stream of rapid-fire questions about what I’m studying in college and planning to do after graduation I face every time I go home.
I find myself wondering why that question has evolved from what I want to be to what I’m planning on doing. Why is it that when you start acting like an adult, there seems to be a huge pressure to pursue something that wasn’t expected of you before? When I was younger, a sufficient answer to the questioning would have been that I wanted to be “someone who works with animals” and I needn’t have any further reasoning than that “I like petting animals.”
Now, the questions around the Thanksgiving table seem to be driven at assessing my future potential to reach some material or cultural definition of success. It’s no longer about what I want to be, but what I’m going to do with the rest of my life so as to get the most out of my education and the monstrosity of sunk cost associated with it. When I say that I’m studying Commerce and hoping to go into consulting, I get nods and smiles. Sometimes I wonder what those faces would look like if I said I wanted to continue pursuing my childhood dreams of petting animals for a living.
While I’m sure that my parents would be supportive of my pursuit of petting animals, they would probably be wondering why I’m wasting four years of my life and out-of-state tuition bills on learning how to succeed in business. As I move further from that dream of petting animals and work instead towards the still-exciting but more societally-acceptable goal of starting a career in corporate consulting, I wonder whether I changed in response to the change in questions being asked of me about my future plans, or whether the new questions sparked the change in my dreams.
Whatever the case, I think the most important question to ask ourselves and our peers is not the childhood “What do you want to be?” or its replacement, “What are you planning to do with your life?” but instead “Who do you want to be?” After all, no matter what goal you pursue or what childhood dreams you keep in your heart, your character, the personhood you cultivate within yourself, and your own personal definition of happiness is what will always be with you, no matter if you end up a professional animal-petter or a Wall Street executive.