Let's Not Be Anything When We Grow Up

Are you one of those people who goes around saying (possibly with a self-deprecating, apologetic, half-ashamed chuckle) "I guess I'm still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up?"

Here's why I suggest you cut it out.

Every time you invoke the question "what am I going to be when I grow up?," you are not only belittling the many ways you express your creativity and use your time that don't happen to fit into the construct of a "job," you are also buying into a whole cultural construct that is both outdated and damaging.  

Even a quick and dirty deconstruction of that sneaky little bomb of a question "what do you want to be when you grow up?" reveals a litany of wrong-headed, outdated ways of thinking:

  1. It equates being with working.  Let's face it, we all know that "what you want to be" is code for "what job do you want to have..."  which is crazy because what it means to be a human being cannot be collapsed into a job title.  No matter how engaging and fulfilling your paying job is, it is always too small to hold the fullness of your humanity.  Sure there are people who feel most themselves when they are at the job they are paid to do, but just as many would say that they are much more fully in their being when they are gardening, or parenting, or organizing a peace march.
  2. It presumes that being "grown up" is synonymous with having arrived at a fixed state of being...which is crazy because we know that adults' brains continue to be plastic and malleable for a long long time...just because our shoe size doesn't change every few months doesn't mean we aren't growing.
  3. It suggests that until you arrive at a job role that defines your being, you are not a real grown up...which is crazy because being an adult actually means becoming more and more like yourself - which is a rather enormous and multi-faceted thing to be.  Sure, a job you do may be an important way of expressing and discovering who you are - but it is the vehicle, not the destination.

So, let's all take a breath and stop banging our heads against the "what I want to be when I grow up" wall, shall we?  (And, for bonus points, let's stop asking this question of our kids.)  

Given the fact that we are now living in a creativity economy in which job titles morph and proliferate daily and in which changing not just employers but fields is more common than not, 

I'd like to suggest that the alternative question "What do you want to create in your lifetime?" is a far more useful starting point for a life of purpose, satisfaction, and impact.  

  1. The new question presumes that you are a creator - in which case the only relevant follow up questions are 'in what ways are you most creative' and 'to what ends do you wish to direct your creative energies?'
  2. The new question implies that all of life is a playground for creating - there is no arbitrary barrier between childhood and adulthood when it comes to our creative selves.  Sure, as we age we may find new reservoirs of the patience and perseverance so necessary for manifesting our visions, we may get more practiced at some skills, and we may broaden our understanding of the contexts in which we create, but our fundamental creative drives are no different at age 8 than they are at age 80.
  3. The new question allows for the possibility that what you want to create today or next year might be different from what you want to create when you are at a different stage of your life - and that's ok.  People nowadays tend to live a very very long time...plenty of time to create all kinds of different things - or one big thing - the relevant question is really "what do you want to create next?"

See what happens to your thinking as you try on this new question for size.  Spoiler alert, I think you'll quickly find that it will be quite helpful to have a MUCH bigger and more robust picture of what creativity looks like - one that goes way beyond the old thinking that creativity = artmaking - but I'll leave that for another post.  Life is long, remember?