you know the age-old question we ask when family is gathered around and our kids have been exposed to just enough of the world to begin to articulate the answer.
“what do you want to be when you grow up?” we wait with baited breath, reveling in the notion that our child dreams of someday becoming a doctor or a veterinarian (swoon) or perhaps even a chef (double swoon!). we think it simultaneously adorable and terrifying if their response strays from the standard fare: an actress (gasp!) or…wait for it…a professional bowler (yes, this is my youngest son’s current career aspiration).
we ask the question in a light-hearted way, knowing that the answer will change umpteen times as they grow, all while reassuring them that no matter what they choose, we will support them. “we just want you to be happy, fulfilled and successful.” that’s all…no pressure.
but the weight of that question stays with us long after we reach the supposed conclusion. our answer to the question kicks off a lifelong trajectory toward the end goal. it’s as if, when they reach it, the stars will align and balloons will fall from the sky in a congratulatory wave of affirmation that “you’ve made it.”
pushing forty, i think it’s safe to say i qualify as a “grown up.” what did i want to be when i grew up? my answers ranged from psychiatrist to MTV veejay to lawyer to travel writer to publicist to advertising pro.
“hey wait a minute…i do work in advertising now! doesn’t that mean that someone should be rolling out the red carpet now? where’s the champagne? the streamers? the hearty pat on the back for a job well done?”
“anyone there? …bueller?”
as you get older you realize that what you are—your profession—is only a sliver of who you are as a person. work success can yield a tremendous amount of pride and personal satisfaction, but it’s hardly the measure of a life. contrary to what society holds up as the ultimate goal, achieving career success, there’s so much more to the equation. just think of all the relationships you have and all the roles you play on a daily basis. in fact, i believe we’re asking the wrong question altogether.
at the end of the day, the real question is: “WHO do you want to be when you grow up?” what kind of person? friend? spouse? parent? at the end of your life, when they’re rolling out the dirt carpet, how do you want to be remembered? odds are those gathered together aren’t counting the campaigns you’ve launched, papers you’ve written, patients you’ve seen, contracts you’ve signed. no, it’s more likely they’re reflecting on the lives you’ve touched, the memories you created, the times you helped out, listened, cried or laughed together.
when you teach your kids (and even yourself) about life’s possibilities, root their identity in something real versus a title that may or may not provide fulfillment. surely they’ll find a path toward a career, but remember that an occupation is but one line in the story of a life. what’s more essential is character—the stuff that lies beneath. deep down, are they kind, sincere, witty, compassionate, generous, adventurous, creative, loyal? do they feel empathy? value relationships? genuinely care about others? in my book, those are the things to strive for—the true mark of success.