What is the toughest question you’ve ever been asked?
For me, “Fries – large or medium?” and “Are you out of your mind?” are top contenders. But they aren’t the toughest questions I’ve ever been asked – not by a long shot.
No, the undoubted winner is “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I like to call this question the ‘How It All Began’ question. I’ll explain.
Imagine this: You’re three years old and your parents have guests over. You’re busy playing with your ‘Barney-the-dinosaur’ soft toy. All of a sudden, there’s a lull in the conversation. Nobody knows what to say, so all eyes slowly turn towards you. You’re too young and innocent to know that you are the next victim. “Aww, what a sweet child,” one lady croons. She looks straight at you and asks, “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” You’re taken aback. Grow up? That’s the first time you’re hearing about this. What does it mean – to grow up? And you have to be something? But why? You start squirming. You look at your parents hopefully. But they’re no help – they’re just beaming down at you, as is a whole group of adults. Suddenly one of them comes to a rescue. “Isn’t that a dinosaur you’re playing with? So, are we looking at an aspiring palaeontologist, then?” The adults laugh. ‘Laughing is good,’ you think, so you nod along. You’re only three, and you already want to be something that you cannot pronounce. Thus the scene is set for disappointment, self-realization and a life reconciled to procrastination.
I really don’t understand why adults would ask unsuspecting little children this question. According to me, it’s one of three reasons:
1. They are genuinely interested. This seems unlikely.
2. They have suppressed memories of adults asking them the same question when they were little, so they are trying to heal themselves by re-enacting the trauma.
3. They want to point and laugh at little children’s dreams because their own childhood dreams were hopelessly crushed and they ended up being accountants. “Oh, so you want to become a ballerina, do you? (snorting) Good luck with that!”
After lengthy observation (not really), I’ve noticed that there are six phases of childhood and each one boasts of a different answer to this question.
Phase 1 (ages 3-5 years): ‘My own little bubble’
You want to become one of the things in the pictures on the walls of your kindergarten class. A doctor. A painter. Dora the explorer.
Me, I went one step further in this phase. I told everyone that I wanted to be the President of the United States of America. That’s slightly strange, because I’m not even American.
Phase 2 (ages 6-7 years): ‘Disillusioned: The bubble pops’
By now, you’re completely disillusioned with life. Your mother’s just told you that you can’t get a monkey, so you can’t be Dora the Explorer. And she scolded you for using up all the Band-Aids in your preparation to be a doctor. That’s when you think, ‘To heck with it! I don’t want to be an explorer, a doctor, or a painter.’
So you decide to be a bird.
Or an anteater, in my case.
Phase 3 (ages 8-10 years): ‘I like the sound of that’
You’ve found that ants don’t taste very good. And you had to get six stiches on your knee when you tried to fly.
But now that you’re eight years old, you’ve heard about a whole range of occupations – and some of them sound really cool. Maybe you decide to be a scientist. Or a fire-fighter. Or a professional football player. Or a feminist. Or an ice-cream man. Sorry… an ice-cream person.
Phase 4 (ages 11-12 years): ‘It’s all about the money, money, money’
You know, scientist, fire-fighter and ice-cream man all seem like really hard jobs. You’d much rather just be rich and famous. No stress, no fuss. Just money. And a big house. Like Paris Hilton. Or Iron Man.
Phase 5 (ages 13-14 years): ‘Can I have a degree with that?’
Okay, your parents are saying that you need to get a degree. You’ve checked and there’s no such thing as a ‘rich-and-famous’ degree. You’re going to have to do something. But it has to be something fun, and interesting. Something you really love. A performing arts degree, maybe. Or a creative writing degree.
Phase 6 (age 15 years): ‘All roads lead to a professional degree’
Yup, it’s settled. Accountancy it is.
So that’s it. You started out with Dora and ended up as a character from Dilbert. Something went wrong along the way, and I think that it’s all because of this pesky question. It just sets the bar too high.
So I’ve devised an ingenious solution. I would be grateful if you could pass my message to as many three-years olds as you possibly can:
Three-years olds of the world: You know when adults ask you “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
You should say, “An adult”.
It can only get better from there.