“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It seems like a simple, innocent question. Asking a child this question is either just to make conversation, to get to know them, or to understand what they want to do so you can keep it in mind for where/when you can help them in the future. No matter what the reason, the result is straightforward: finding out more about a person’s interests, goals, or pursuits in life.
But there is a deeper understanding of life and how it works underneath this simple inquiry. Life is about growth into a continuously improved future state for yourself and the people you care about. Yes, you age and eventually need support from others as you did when you were very young, but many people still find ways to contribute to society or pass one wisdom and stories to family members until the end. But, starting from an early age, every person thinks about the direction in which they want their lives to go (i.e., grow) and where they want to be along the course of their lives. And despite people not consciously stating their understanding of what life is about, the fact that this is the big question that ultimately needs to get answered when you transition from childhood to adulthood, you know it is the crux of your existence.
Note that there is a misconception about this question, though: most people mean what job or career they want to pursue. Sure, if someone answered, “I want to be a mother,” no one would bat an eye (unless they really did want to know career and so clarified), but the typical expectation is to answer with your role in society, which to most people is their job or career. The only reason that it’s a misconception is that growth can come in many forms, but I’m sure it might cause some social awkwardness if someone said that they wanted to start a religion, invade another country, or have exactly 32 friends.
So the good news is that there is an intuitive understanding of what lies at the center of life, but people take social cues and so think it’s all about the job or career. It’s not the worst thing to get right, after all: you’ll likely spend at least 8 hours per day, 5 days per week for 30+ years performing said activity and so it’s good to focus that time on something that you are willing and able to do. But if someone thinks that this is all that they should ponder about planning-wise, they will miss out on so many components that they might then neglect later. Diet, exercise, friendships, relationships, children, spiritual connection, finances, or other components are examples of aspects of your life that can become a weak spot in your overall wellness and life satisfaction if you don’t consider them.
I know this sounds obvious, but think about how many people experience major hardships in these areas because they either didn’t think or get educated enough about them or social influence caused them to adopt others’ bad habits in them. The examples are nearly endless:
Yes, there are certain ones that might generally take a higher priority: the biggest regret of most people in elderly homes is not spending more time with family. Few people will say that they wish they had spent more time at work, but more than a few will cite things like wishing they had saved more money, wishing they had taken care of their body a little better, or wishing they had children or found the love of their lives.
But no matter what you end up deciding to do with your life, the components will be similar: you have to choose what future state you are striving for and then figure out what you have to do to get it. Yes, it can be difficult to balance multiple priorities or to know exactly what you want, but that understanding is very important to your long-term life satisfaction.
Now, this is not a post about how to figure out what you want to be when you grow up, as I have written plenty of posts and an entire book on how to find your life purpose. The goal of this post is to get you to ask the question and realize how important it is to your meaning and purpose in life. But there is one final point that is worth considering once you know that: you can pick any part of your life or any future state that you want in that picture. Note that the question is “what do you want to be” and not “what do you want to do” or “what do you want to have”—it’s about the kind of person you want to be and the kind of life you want to have lived to become that person. And that’s interesting because you both want to think of your future as the kind you want to be present in and believe that being in that future is possible and fulfilling. You need to have both because the only way for you to actually do anything to make that future a reality is if you want it and believe it enough.
So the next time you hear someone ask that question (whether to you or another person), remember that you can do that mental exercise and picture your future exactly how you want it to be. You can even change your mind at any time since your preferences will change as you learn more. Sure, you might give a socially acceptable answer of what profession you’ll pursue and keep your complete answer to yourself, but you can make that answer whatever you want.