To this day, I have no answer to this question. I never did. I always felt like a weirdo for not having an answer. Everyone else didn’t even seem to hesitate before happily responding: firefighter, policeman, doctor, nurse, etc. My own mother used to be concerned that I always replied: I don’t know. I was confident that someday I would have an epiphany and know exactly what career I’d like to pursue. Someday I’d be able to answer confidently like all the other kids. I was sure of it.
Unfortunately, I was applying to college before I realized that epiphany wasn’t coming. I was confronted with the huge decision of what to major in when I still wasn’t sure what options were even out there or what I would be best suited for. My parents had never been particularly passionate about their jobs, so I never really expected to be either. In my mind, I couldn’t grasp why anyone would actually want to work anywhere. Working in general seemed awful and constricting. I just wanted to live my life. I wanted to be free to do whatever I saw fit on any given day. It seemed like a nightmare to be locked into doing one thing forever. So I basically soldiered onward with the assumption that regardless of which career path I choose, I’d end up hating it.
Thankfully, I have always been very intelligent and can achieve pretty much whatever I put my mind to. I was free to select any major and know that I’d be capable of handling the course material. At first I went for the sciences because I knew that’s where the money was. If I was going to hate my job either way, I might as well make some money. However, after only a semester of that, I decided it was too much effort and stress for something I had no passion for. I gave up on the idea of being rich and decided my quality of life from day to day was more important. I decided to switch my major to psychology since my Psych 101 class was the only one I actually enjoyed.
At the end of the day, I was very lucky. I managed to accidentally fall into the exact right field for myself. Not only do I find psychology and the human brain endlessly fascinating to learn about, I am able to use what I learn and the interactions I have with my clients to help me be a better version of myself, which is also one of my favorite things to work on.
Through my own experience in education and the workforce, I’ve come to realize that we as a society are asking kids all the wrong questions. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Even as a child I thought that was a peculiar question to ask someone so young. How the hell should I know? That was always what I was wondering. It’s funny when you really think about it. How many jobs are children even aware of? And of the handful that they do know, how much do they understand about what those jobs actually entail on a daily basis? I used to think there was something wrong with me for not knowing. Now I realize that even the kids who had an answer didn’t really know either. How could they? Does a child that says, “I want to be a doctor,” really know what it means to be a doctor? Don’t the kids that say, “I want to be a veterinarian,” just say that because they enjoy spending time with animals?
Honestly part of the problem is the apathy of the parents and the education system. You might as well ask these kids where they want to go to college. It the job of the adults in these kids’ lives to teach them what is available, to guide them toward goals that they are well suited for. I think instead of asking children what they want to be, we should ask them what they are endlessly curious about. We should ask them what they think they’d be able to learn about every day and never get bored. Then as those interests grow and evolve, parents and teachers should explain to children the different careers that would involve their interests on a daily basis. It’s hard to hate your job when it’s something that deeply interests you.
It’s such a shame all the ways in which our education system fails our children. School is supposed to prepare us for the real world, yet that idea has become a joke instead. I think a lot of people, like myself, have assumed that a lot of these things are being covered at home by the kids’ parents. However, when I began working in the community, I realized that there are sooo many people that don’t have responsible, caring, capable family members to teach them these things. Unfortunately it would be better for us to assume that children aren’t learning anything at home, because a huge proportion of them aren’t.
For the limited time I get to spend with the children I meet everyday, I am going to do my best to ask them the right questions. Then they may at least have a concept of where to start. I know it’s not much, but it’s all I can do at the moment. Hopefully someday I will become a teacher and get a chance to make a bigger impact on the next generation. But if you are a teacher or if you have your own children, try asking them what they are interested in learning rather than what they want to be. Help give them an idea of what options are out there for them and what those options actually look like in practice. Give this upcoming generation a chance to thrive and love what they do in the future.