Has anyone ever asked you what you want to be when you grow up?
Do you appreciate when adults ask the question and consider it a sign that they are interested in your life, hopes and dreams? Or are you annoyed, filled with dread and wish you could run and hide?
How do you respond to these queries? Do you dive in and discuss your future plans honestly? Or do you give a pat answer to get the grown-up off your back?
If there were a way to magically make this question disappear forever, would you wish it away?
In “Stop Asking Kids What They Want to Be When They Grow Up,” Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, writes:
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
When I was a kid, I dreaded the question. I never had a good answer. Adults always seemed terribly disappointed that I wasn’t dreaming of becoming something grand or heroic, like a filmmaker or an astronaut.
In college, I finally realized that I didn’t want to be one thing. I wanted to do many things. So I found a workaround: I became an organizational psychologist. My job is to fix other people’s jobs. I get to experience them vicariously — I’ve gotten to explore how filmmakers blaze new trails and how astronauts build trust. And I’ve become convinced that asking youngsters what they want to be does them a disservice.
My first beef with the question is that it forces kids to define themselves in terms of work. When you’re asked what you want to be when you grow up, it’s not socially acceptable to say, “a father,” or, “a mother,” let alone, “a person of integrity.” This might be one of the reasons many parents say their most important value for their children is to care about others, yet their kids believe that top value is success. When we define ourselves by our jobs, our worth depends on what we achieve.
The second problem is the implication that there is one calling out there for everyone. Although having a calling can be a source of joy, research shows that searching for one leaves students feeling lost and confused. And even if you’re lucky enough to stumble onto a calling, it might not be a viable career. My colleagues and I have found that callings often go unanswered: Many career passions don’t pay the bills, and many of us just don’t have the talent. After the comedian Chris Rock heard an administrator tell entering high schoolers they could be anything they want to be, he asked, “Lady, why are you lying to these children?” Maybe four of them could be anything they want to be. But the other 2,000 had better learn how to weld. He added: “Tell the kids the truth. You can be anything you’re good at — as long as they’re hiring.”
If you manage to overcome those obstacles, there is a third hurdle: Careers rarely live up to your childhood dreams. In one study, looking for the ideal job left college seniors feeling more anxious, stressed, overwhelmed and depressed throughout the process — and less satisfied with the outcome. As Tim Urban writes, happiness is reality minus expectations. If you’re looking for bliss, you’re bound to be disappointed. This explains research showing that people who graduate from college during a recession are more satisfied with their work three decades later: They don’t take it for granted that they have a job.
The upside of low expectations is that they erase the gap between what we wanted and what we got. Extensive evidence shows that instead of painting a rosy picture of a job, you’re better off going in with a realistic preview of what it’s really like, warts and all. Sure, you might be a little less excited to take it, but on average you end up more productive and less likely to quit. Oprah said it best: “Your job is not always going to fulfill you.”
I’m all for encouraging youngsters to aim high and dream big. But take it from someone who studies work for a living: those aspirations should be bigger than work. Asking kids what they want to be leads them to claim a career identity they might never want to earn. Instead, invite them to think about what kind of person they want to be — and about all the different things they might want to do.
Students, read the entire article, then answer the following questions:
— Do you hate when adults ask you what you want to be when you grow up? If yes, what bothers you about this question? If no, what do you appreciate about it? How do you usually answer it?
— How persuasive is Mr. Grant’s argument against the ubiquitous question? Do you agree with him that the question is problematic because it “forces kids to define themselves by work” and implies that there is only one career path for you?
— By your best estimation, how many times have you been asked this question? Why do you think adults ask it? Do you think there is a better question for adults to ask children? How would you answer Mr. Grant’s revised version of the question: What kind of person do you want to be?
— How much do you think about who you are now and who you want to become? How clear or certain are you about your future?
— Do you agree with the comedian Chris Rock, quoted in the article, that teachers and adults are lying when they tell young people they can be anything they want to be? Should youngsters be taught to be more realistic about their future? Do you feel that aspirations and dreams are a good thing? If yes, how should they play into career and personal ambitions? If no, do you agree with Mr. Grant that there is an “upside of low expectations”?
Finally, listen to Abby Overstrom’s account on being repeatedly asked this question in the three-minute podcast episode “When I’m Older, ” which was one of 10 winning entries from our 2018 Student Podcast Contest. Then, decide: Do you agree with Abby?