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The Futility Of ‘What Do You Want To Be?’

24 Apr 2023

It's a question we ask young and old about their direction in life - but it's time to discard it and stop strangling creativity and opportunity.

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Image:Vadim Bogulov/Unsplash.

When my son was being interviewed for a new intermediate, the principal asked him what he wanted to be.

"YouTube star" he said, beaming like he was about to get a badge. 

When the principal’s eyebrows shot up, we tripped over ourselves, talking too quickly about how he really was academic and sporty and hardly watched YouTube.

Five years on and YouTube star has been replaced many times.

I don't know why we ask kids this heavy question. Most don't know. 

And it turns out many adults don't know either. 

The average number of jobs a person will have going into their career now is 33. That’s the average. Over that many jobs, there is a chance to do many things - to be more than one thing.

I don’t know about you but I found the whole 'choose one thing' confusing and frightening. Like Neo felt in The Matrix when everyone was telling him he was The One. The pressure! 

You don’t want to be any kind of one. Not the first one. Not the last one. Not the only one. And not having to choose one career or job. 

A few years ago, I interviewed a punk-singer medical student who refused to be one thing — a musician or a doctor — and wanted to be both. She reminded me of MIA's drummer, Kiran Gandhi, who is a mathematician and accomplished musician.

Choosing one thing is hard

At the Festival for the Future a couple of years ago, the founder of Banqer, Kendall Flutey, spoke about the pressure on young people to choose one thing to become. Thinking she needed an answer as a teen, she chose to be an accountant. Once qualified, she realised that wasn’t what she wanted - she was more interested in community work and young people and went on to co-create the financial literacy programme for kids and teens now used around the globe. 

Flutey said she wished she had been asked not what but who do you want to be. 

Answering 'who' allows you to incorporate your own values and it's not all about 'what' you do to make money, to keep capitalism alive. It’s about who you are.

Choosing one path doesn’t take into account your personality either. What if you’re great at starting things and lose interest at the end? What if you’re an ignitor but not a finisher? 

I wanted to be a physiotherapist when I was 16 but thank goodness I never became one, as there might be a lot of unfinished treatments. 

I do complete things, of course (I got two babies out) but towards the end of projects, I work better as part of a team. When my Ignitor energy flags, I get buoyed up by the Planners and Keep-it-on-Trackers.

You never hear kids say, 'When I grow up I want to be a collaborative team player', but they sure are valued as adults, especially if they are also creative and compassionate. These are the values that make the world easier to exist in more than competitors, comparisors and controllers. ‘Not a controlling competitive schmuck’ should be an answer when we ask kids what they want to be.

Like Flutey says, instead of ‘what do you want to be’ we need to ask, ‘who do you want to be’. 

Because at 18 or 35 or 48 or 73 - we can answer that. 

You are passionate about making things better! You are creative! You love solving puzzles and problems! You are an active part of your community! You are adventurous and spontaneous! You are a brilliant sexual partner! (perhaps not for job interviews). You are a stargazer! You care about climate change! You care about equity! You are a words person! You love numbers! You are a people person! You are an animal person! 

Whatever it is, we know who, not what we are from a young age. Then we are already one of something. Ourselves. 

And we can have lots of 'whats'. 33 if we want.

Written by Angela Barnett.