Rephrasing the Big Question

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

I’ve decided that this is the wrong question.  It places the focus on titles, nouns, a state of being.

“A Ballerina.”  “A Fireman.”  “A Doctor.”  “A Forensic Scientist.”

When we ask our students about their futures, I don’t want to hear about passive states of being.  So here’s the question I ask:

What do you want to DO when you grow up?

See the difference?  One question focuses on the kids as a state of being, and the other focuses on the action.  One makes them a noun, and the other describes the verb.  

So how about it?  What do you want to do when you grow up?  How do you want to spend the daily hours of your adult life?  Will you meet with patients, diagnosing diseases and making critical decisions about another person’s healthcare?  Will you analyze soil samples, compare chemical equations, and write grant proposals?  Will you teach a room full of students your favorite subject, somehow keeping track of 27 hormonal teenagers the same time?  Or would you rather sit quietly behind a desk, cataloging books in a library or editing the words someone else wrote?  Would you rather work with your hands, guiding the paths of electrical circuits or fixing cars?

Don’t think about the title or the name of the profession.  Think about the action, the daily grind.  Think about your strengths, skills, and interests.  Don’t just think about the subject; think about the activities, too.  I almost wrote, “don’t think about the paycheck,” but then I stopped.

You do need to think about the compensation for your work, because how you spend your hours as an adult should be enjoyable, but it also needs to support you financially, too.  You’ll need to pay the rent, car payments, insurance, electric bills, water bills, internet service, phone service, groceries, gas, student loans….  I could go on, but you get the idea.  Being an adult is expensive.  In order to be financially independent, you need to be able to pay for those things all on your own, and your career is how you do it.  So be careful that you do not lose sight of reality as you pursue your dreams.  Depending on what kind of life you’re trying to support, waiting tables may not be enough of a Plan B, and your parents shouldn’t have to be your Plan C.

Here’s an honest truth I had to face as a teen: Many straight English majors need at least a Master’s to find a job.  I went the education route partly so that I could support myself right after college without needing to go to grad school.  If you want to study English, history, philosophy, or the fine arts, start researching careers in those fields now.  Immediately.  Stop reading this blog post and go  here –> (College Board) to explore your options.  Talk to people in the fields that interest you.  Find out what your daily activities would include.  Find out if you need more education than just a bachelor’s degree to succeed in that field.  Find out if what you like about that subject will come into play at all in that profession.  Hint:  Librarians don’t sit around reading books all day, and there are not many artists who can make a living simply by selling their paintings.  Research scientists need to be able to write to publish papers and write grant proposals.  Teachers need to be good at more than just their subject matter.  In fact, most careers are about some kind action, not just knowing subjects.

Eventually your career choice will lead to a title.  I am a teacher.  My husband is an optometrist.  However, we both came to those titles through finding what we liked to do and pursuing that, not the other way around.  Instead of thinking about the title you want to be, find what action you want to do and pursue that for your future.


14 thoughts on “Rephrasing the Big Question

  1. This was a really good post, and I have to say, it’s nice to hear that instead of stating the typical question, you’ve altered it – but only ever so slightly, and it’s actually made a difference. Also, I hope you don’t mind me asking this, but, well, what’s it LIKE being a teacher? How is it?! I’ve always been a bit curious!
    Anyway, thanks for sharing! I really enjoyed reading this!
    Have a great day,
    Regards, ZB


    • Haha, that’s a loaded question, but I’ll try to answer it. 🙂 Teaching high school is a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding. It’s engaging 20+ students at once, monitoring every corner and all the whispers, figuring out what’s worth the battle and what’s OK to let slide, while teaching a lesson at the same time. It’s inherently needing to be excited about the content so that students will find it interesting, too. It’s figuring out how to meet the expectations of administrators, parents, and legal state requirements. It’s a lot of hours spent planning and grading outside the school day. It’s keeping a thick skin so that students who don’t listen or are blatantly rude don’t bother you. It’s watching young people engage in new ideas, growing before your eyes, and saying the most ridiculous things sometimes. It’s checking your personal life at the door every day because students are always watching and shouldn’t have to deal with their teacher’s personal issues. It’s making connections and knowing you’ve made a difference in the world through those students. It’s an investment in young people that may not always be appreciated, but when it is, the payoff is incredible. Never a dull moment, and I love it!


      • Wow! Thank you so much for replying!
        A great answer, you certainly ARE a genuinely wonderful person and I wish you all the best for the future. Never did I imagine how fascinating the teaching profession really is. The feeling of watching students develop right before your eyes – and contributing towards that – must be something quite special!
        Thanks again!


  2. Great post. That is def. a distinction I’ll make in the classroom as this topic comes up. I teach juniors and seniors, so yes – it comes up!!! lol


    • Thank you! That’s when I started thinking about the question, actually. I would talk to juniors and seniors, and I would have a student say she wanted to be a forensic scientist because it was “cool,” but I knew she didn’t like science! Very few of them had thought through the daily grind of what their “ideal” careers entailed.


  3. Love the rephrasing of this question. I am still figuring out at 40 something what I want to be but I can sure tell you what I like to DO! I work with young children and when they were asked if they wanted to be children or grown up’s they all said children. It is sad but they have already figured out that in our culture being an adult can look like no fun. I say we put the fun back into our live and love what we do!


    • I love it! I agree. I think being an adult is awesome. I think the key is helping young people see and find fulfilling work, though. The responsibilities of adult life are actually exciting when they’re approached from the perspective of exciting, fulfilling career options.


  4. I absolutely love your viewpoint on this question. I’ve always thought that I have clear in my mind what I want to be when I grow up…which seems to be scarily close… but I’ve never stopped to think what I want to be doing every day for the rest of my life. Thanks for the insight!


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