What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

30 May

The Dreaded Question.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s asked with such teasing benevolence to a child, isn’t it?

A ballerina, or a cowboy, or an astronaut. A chemist or a rock star, or an actress. The sky’s the limit; we can be anything we want to be.

“How wonderful,” they reply, eyes laughing at our innocent exuberance.

“So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” they ask the teenager-us.

“I don’t know,” we reply, privately thinking that we’d only just discovered the opposite SEX, for goodness sakes, and we have a math final on Thursday and a football game on Friday and our best friend Suzie isn’t talking to us because we wore the wrong skirt to last week’s dance, so maybe they could cut us a little slack on the whole “planning our entire future” thing.

“Ah,” they reply, then pause. “Well, you should probably start thinking about it.”

“What are you going to do with your life?” the twenty-year-old us is asked.

We grit our teeth and bite back our real response – the one that tells them exactly where they can shove their no-longer-well-meaning question.

“When are you going to settle down, start a family?”

“How long are you just going to bounce from job to job?”

“When are you going to get a REAL job and stop wasting your life?”

Each question asked with increasing impatience until the eager delight with which we once answered the question has completely vanished.

Some folks know.

Some people, seems like they’ve always known what they want to be.  “A chemist!” answers the little boy who grows up to discover a new element.

Some folks figure it out in high school. “Wow, I loved that programming class! I want to be a programmer!”

Some stumble upon it later in life. “Everyone really gushed over that cake I decorated for Jimmy’s birthday. I think I’ll take some classes and learn to do it professionally.”

Some folks don’t.

Some folks never figure it out.

And you know what?


There. I said it.

If you are “growed up” enough to pay your own bills and be responsible for your actions, why should anyone care if you’re doing it while flipping burgers or backpacking across Europe every other summer?

Some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met never decided what they wanted to be “when they grew up”.

They often have the most experiences, the best stories, the most vivid life.

Personally, I hate what that question has become. That rarely-gentle prod that you need to define your life by your profession. The very implication that 18-year-0ld you should somehow magically know what job will make you happy when you’re 40 seems absurd. Preposterous.

Yet the folks who don’t know the answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up?” are led to believe that there is something WRONG with them for not having their entire future mapped out.

The Reason

The question exists because the person asking it usually wants to make sure that we DO have a future, and hopes that future is one with stable income and presumably happiness.

I understand the compassionate and loving roots of the question.

My beef is with the outcome of it. The implication of it, the results of it, and how it’s used. The fact that it has become “When you finally stop acting like a child, what profession are you going to dedicate the rest of your life to?”


When I was a kid, I knew (KNEW, beyond a shadow of a doubt) that I was going to work with animals. Probably as a veterinarian, though I wasn’t going to throw out the option of being a horse trainer.

Three animal-related jobs later, I knew I could never professionally work with animals. I love the animals, but not the owners.

When I “grew up”, I became a programmer, but that’s not who I am.

I’m a writer and an animal-lover and an artist and a gardener and a cook. I turn into a pumpkin at 9pm every night and snore like a lumberjack. I like flowy skirts and paisley patterns and corsets. I play video games and suck at rollerblading and sing to the songs on the radio when I’m in my car. I’m stormy nights, wrapped in a blanket while reading a book and sipping on hot cocoa.

When I “grow up”, I want to be horseback rides into town to buy groceries. I want to be novels written and loved by someone who has never met me. I want to be a pair of well-behaved dogs playing fetch on a hot summer day. I want to be swimming in the ocean, or climbing a tree, or biting into an apple I grew myself. I want to be fuzzy bees drawing lazy circles around re-planted native wildflowers. I want to be a hammock and an accidental sunburn and a glass of ice-cold lemonade.

Tell me … What do YOU want to be when you grow up?


12 Responses to “What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?”

  1. Jason May 31, 2011 at 3:30 am #

    I’ll preface this with a bit of background; I turned 30 almost 2 months ago. I’m married and have 4 kids, plus another due in January.

    Despite all of that, despite holding a steady job, and two associates degrees, one of which is in Computer Science and the other in Intelligence and Technology Studies(No, I’m not making that up. One of the courses was, in layman’s terms, Applied Blowing Stuff Up, the actual class being listed on my transcript as Weaponeering).

    So, yea, there’s really nothing wrong with it. Some people, as you point out, just know. Some folks(like you and me, for example) spend their whole lives figuring it out. Personally, in 6 months or so, I’m going to start work on a Bachelor’s, but I have no idea as to what in. It’ll probably be a continuation of my Intel AA, simply because it’s fresher in my nugget. But beyond that? What do I do with myself in 11 and a half years or so when this phase in my life is over and I move on? Who knows, I sure as hell don’t.

    • Tami May 31, 2011 at 7:31 am #

      *high five* I turn thirty in December. I’m trying to decide if I want to party like it’s 1980 or hit the snooze button three extra times to celebrate. (Hint: I love sleep)

      Weaponeering doesn’t sound real. I don’t even LIKE weapons, and I kinda want to take that class. *laugh*

      It’s awesome that you’re continuing education in the face of job + family. That’s a hard one to wrangle, but I love to hear about folks who pull it off. Where the “education stops at 24” crowd got their ideas, I just don’t understand. I hope someday to tell my professor that I can’t make it to class because I slipped and broke a hip again, and I can’t find my dentures.

  2. Fallah May 31, 2011 at 9:41 am #

    I was one of those kids who had it all figured out. During HS I just knew: I had to be a scientist! A biologist specifically, and probably something plant-related. True fact: my senior yearbook has me pegged for “In 10 years, she will be living in the Amazon as a botanist studying medicinal plants.”

    4 years of college, got my BS in Biology. Went right into a PhD in Plant Biology.

    Hated it. HATED IT. Being a scientist sucks. Long hours, repetitive and frustrating work, and it seems like everyone around you is more brilliant than you.

    I’m not the only one. A good friend in undergrad started out as pre-med. Wanted to be a doctor. 2 years in he realized he couldn’t stand working with patients. He became a microbiologist instead, and is now apparently working on a law degree (!)

    I want to be relaxed, financially secure. I want to be a Mom. I want to have a dog that I can take everywhere. I want to be financially secure so that I can relax. I want a greenhouse where I can grow green things and tasty things and pretty things, but at my own speed. I want to surround myself with music again. I want to make Stuff with my own two hands.

    And none of that depends on my “day job”, aside from the financial security.

    • Tami May 31, 2011 at 9:54 am #

      Ugh. I feel your pain. Worst of all is when you don’t figure it out until AFTER racking up a ridiculous amount of student debt. Bad enough that education costs so much.

      Love your closing line, “And none of that depends on my “day job”, aside from the financial security.”

  3. Steve – Kestrel's Aerie May 31, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    I knew in junior high school that I wanted to be a lawyer. I was a political science major during my freshman year of college, because it was as good as any for pre-law. Then I found out what a lazy student I am (it worked in high school; at UCLA—not so much). Hellooo, reality check!

    Ended up with a bachelor’s in psychology, because it was pretty easy (then; not so much now), and a commission in the Air Force. Spent twenty mostly wonderful years as an Air Force officer, and could easily have done another twenty. Trouble is, I was lazy as a brown-noser, too.

    Then I spent fourteen years in human resources, and found that the most fun in that job was the part dealing with law. Who’da thunk it? But the hiring process? HATED IT. Firing? HATED IT MORE. Dealing with a work ethic that can be encapsulated in “what’s in it for me?” didn’t help either.

    Then, I got laid off. Fortunately, I was able to stay laid off (i.e., retired). Now, I’m finally doing what I want, which is…doing what I want. I’d still like to be a lawyer, though. But I’m even lazier now than I was 40 years ago. 🙂

    • Tami May 31, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

      I am determined to work like crazy at this job (which I DO love) for as long as I can, and hide enough acorns in my bank so that I can retire early. Because YES. ❤

  4. Michael Fox May 31, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    I’m 50, and have been asked that question so many times it hurts to hear it now. it took me 37 years to figure out I’m a writer. The rest of the time is trying to eke out a living while writing and waiting for that moment When I hear ‘sold!’
    Ever had so many things going on in your mind that you never know what to work on next? That’s me. I’m good at a lot of jobs, but I don’t enjoy them. I enjoy writing. Period. Let me live my life the way I want to!

    • Tami May 31, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

      If only passion equated to monetary gain. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

      Those of us playing the writer’s game aren’t alone in the whole passion does not equal monetary success, but it’s a common refrain among writers.

      Even so, finding that THING that you love, knowing what it is and having the time to work at it … that’s a wonderful thing. Doesn’t matter what your JOB is, I love hearing about folks who know what their SOUL is.

  5. Caulle May 31, 2011 at 9:40 pm #

    I’m actually sort of kicking myself. For as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be an artist. When it came time to head off to University, I just went to the one I got accepted to which didn’t have a visual art program. So I studied history for 2 years, I hated it, I dropped out.

    A few years later I randomly taught myself how to ink comics and after a year of honing in this hobby I turned it into a bit of a career. About 4 years ago the frequency of work dropped off so much that I could barely afford rent. Inks just were not needed as frequently in the age of digital painting.

    Last October at the age of 30 I got hired as QA at ArenaNet testing Guild Wars 2. I started learning a bit more about the environment team, and building maps. I fell in love with it, and now I know exactly what I want to do “when I grow up”. I want to be an artist.

    So it’s weird for me. I’ve always wanted to be an artist when I grew up, and technically for the past 7 years I have been working professionally as one. But I was never really happy. Now that I’m not working as an artist full time I really miss being one and very much so would like to be one again.

    • Tami June 1, 2011 at 9:34 am #

      “Art” is such a broad term – even knowing you want to be creative in such a way can really leave the field wide open. And it’s hard enough making it in today’s world as an artist – it’s fanTAStic that you’ve found one that you love so much! Is it the map building you love, or the character design? 3D art, or traditional tools? *curious*

      • Caulle June 1, 2011 at 8:26 pm #

        It’s the map building. Part of it reminds me of being in film school. The 2 aspects of film I was always most interested in were cinematography and set design. Building a map is basically a combination of the two. I build the sets with props, and then I get to light the sets.

        I do need to build up my 3D skills though. It would add a lot to my skill set and give me more opportunities.

      • Tami June 2, 2011 at 8:14 am #

        @Caulle (hopefully this reply goes below yours)

        That’s awesome. What tools would you play with to do the 3d set design? I think the Unreal Engine is used by lots of folks (man, I wish my husband were here – he took a couple courses in video game design and I know he could speak on the subject).

        I’ve always been interested in creature design, myself, but I LOVE looking at video game world design stuff. So epic, and yet so much opportunity for tiny details of awesomeness. I’m a very slow gamer, because I like to stop and explore nooks and crannies. 😀

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