Why I Still Don’t Know What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

Why I Still Don’t Know What I Want to Be When I Grow Up
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The Age-Old Question: What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

Adults apparently find it amusing to ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Understanding that they are expected to supply a definitive answer, most children insert a profession from the limited set of job options of which they have been made aware: “firefighter,” “dancer,” “astronaut,” etc. All of our mouths would drop open if a child exclaimed, "software developer," "risk manager," "insurance agent," or "creative director!" Why is that?

First, non-traditional careers are not widely publicized or easily accessible in childhood. Consider The Game of Life – a game created to give children a preview of their future selves, to develop their likes and dislikes, and to encourage “winning” the most objectively and subjectively desirable things in life. The game contains career cards reading, among other things, “doctor,” “artist,” “teacher,” and “athlete.”

Children are usually encouraged to be imaginative, but for some reason, career choices seem to be placed inside the box. It seems strange to me that children are not exposed earlier to the reality that most people end up working jobs outside of these traditional options.

Children Are Taught To "Dream Big" Not To "Dream Smart."

My hypothesis is that children are taught to "dream big" (to be whatever they want to be) but not to "dream smart." As a nine-year-old girl, I watched Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, awe-struck as she brilliantly elicited a confession from the prosecution’s witness. I knew immediately that what Elle achieved in that courtroom was the type of adrenaline-pumping action that I sought and still seek. But until beginning law school, nobody made clear to me that the everyday lives of the vast majority of lawyers were not nearly that satisfying. I walked into law school with a perennial courtroom in my mind, but I will leave with a desk and a computer in its place.

<p>Elle Woods, satisfied with her work. </p>

Elle Woods, satisfied with her work.


As in my example, “dreaming big” often includes not dreaming realistically. Forbes reports that over 10 percent of all children aspire to become professional athletes, and 2–3 percent hope to become astronauts. In reality, though, only 1 in 11,771 male high school athletes become professional basketball players, and NASA has only hired 257 astronauts since its creation in 1958. The odds of attaining these extremely rare yet highly encouraged positions could not be much lower. I suggest that there might be a way to continue encouraging children to follow their dreams without keeping them blind to the realities behind them.

<p>Data compiled by <em>Forbes</em></p>

Data compiled by Forbes


To clarify, I do not advocate delivering the crushing truths of the real world to cheerful kindergartners or squashing their dreams before they even begin pursuing them. My concern, however, is that without any perspective on the true possibilities and impossibilities, as well as advantages and disadvantages of various careers, children, teenagers, and young adults cannot develop informed dreams about which paths to pursue. My concern is that they are set up for disappointment when their dream jobs do not work out the way they expected.

The Balance explains, “Kids typically want these jobs because of the excitement, the fame, or the chance to help other people. Whether or not children realize it, many of these jobs vary drastically in terms of experience needed, education required, and salary.” The result is that many young adults have to redefine their career goals later in life, after realizing that their childhood dream jobs are not realistic or well suited for them. And the result of that is that many adults never find their "calling" or only find it later in life – after frustrating traditional career paths and embarking on a series of twists and turns that leads to career paths they never even heard of as children.

How Am I Supposed To Know What Career Is Right For Me?

I find that there tend to be two types of people in law school (and perhaps the rest of the world): those who have too many interests and those who are not interested in anything at all. The former category wonders: “How am I supposed to choose only one of my many areas of interest?” Or, “How can I combine my many interests into one career?” The latter wonders: “What are the chances that I will enjoy working in one field if I cannot even identify something I am passionate about?” But most importantly, both types of people grow anxious wondering, “How am I supposed to know whether I will like this job without having ever done it?”

One mistake people make when considering these questions is waiting to commit until the perfect job falls right under their nose. Similar to those who wait for a love-at-first-sight moment, these people may let something really incredible slip away in the meantime. An imperfect fit is not synonymous with the wrong choice. I realize that this empty realization hardly makes committing to a particular job any easier, though.

Better Credentials Can Actually Limit Options.

Everyone would agree that being stuck in a miserable industry is a scary thought. Sometimes this type of involuntary commitment can occur simply by becoming too specialized in a certain field. In this way, educational and career advances can actually pigeonhole professionals.

Standard advice is that education and experience will open doors for you. I agree, but sometimes it seems like education and experience only open the doors lining one narrow hallway, but the doors to the other hallways in the rest of the house remain shut!

To translate, education and experience might advance your career opportunities in one field but take you further away from the possibility of obtaining career opportunities in other fields. Think about it: A restaurant owner seeks to hire an experienced bartender to mix cocktails; no matter how impressive the competing applicant’s eight years of computer engineering at Google are, the experienced bartender will be the winner.

For many people – including this hypothetical Google engineer – changing careers mid-way through life is really difficult. It requires starting from square one; very rarely can one transfer his experience in one field to another. For example, the advice I have received in order to become a television station’s legal commentator is to finish law school, forego a job offer at a law firm, become a reporter in the middle of nowhere, waitress on the side to support myself, and hope that I get some lucky breaks. To me, that seems like too big of a risk to give up three years of legal education and the lucrative career opportunities available to graduating students.

I do not believe that I am alone in rejecting the idea of rejecting better paying and more prestigious opportunities that high credentials make possible. But that might mean not finding my perfect fit.


Listening To Yourself Instead Of All The Noise Around You Is Difficult.

Everyone and their mother (including my mother) offer different advice. On top of all of these individual voices, society as a whole has an opinion. It is nearly impossible to avoid the prospect of prestige and wealth – which society holds in high regard – from clouding our judgment.

As much as possible, though, we need to ask ourselves: What are my priorities? Are they work-life balance, fat paychecks, stimulating everyday work? How much money am I willing to give up to avoid selling my soul? What am I willing to do now in order to be happy later?

The earlier in life we start thinking about our goals and priorities, in addition to which jobs realistically match those goals and priorities, the more likely we are to figure out our best career fits. I think that this should start earlier in childhood, but maybe, just maybe, it is not too late for the adults among us who still do not know how to answer, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”


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