I hate that question.
I’m very goal-driven with the things that I think need direction. And I have a strong sense of my personal and career-related values.
But I still hate that question.
So years ago when the teacher in charge of my high school yearbook asked it to me and everyone else in the Top 10, our conversation was quite interesting:
Nathan: I don’t know.
Yearbook Advisor: You have to know.
Nathan: No, I don’t. I don’t know.
Yearbook Advisor: Everyone else has something listed.
Nathan: And that means I have to follow the crowd?
Yearbook Advisor: Yes. The Top 10 should be setting an example for everyone else.
Nathan: Well, I’m sorry, but I really don’t know and I think this is as much of a good example as everyone else’s answer. If you’re that desperate, you can pick something for me and include it in the yearbook.
Well, months passed and the yearbook was finally published. I flipped to the career plans page for the Top 10, and apparently the advisor wrote “Engineer or pro wrestler” under my photo. (Yes, this is a true story.) I’m Asian and had a reputation of being good at math, but an engineer was possibly the only thing I knew I didn’t want to be.
I found this story funny, but I think there was an important takeaway for myself and for others:
Okay, back to that ugly question and all its flaws. What do you want to be when you grow up? If you’re aspiring to be something like a writer, musician, anthropologist, chef, teacher, mechanic, or social worker, you better own up to it and correct your interviewer. You already are that writer, musician, anthropologist, chef, teacher, mechanic, or social worker. It’s not something you want to be when you grow up. It’s something you live and breathe already.
If you want anyone to consider your seriousness for a career, you need to give a role to yourself. You could say you’re a “teacher” if teaching others is what you often informally do, even if you don’t stand in front of a chalkboard every day. I suppose you can’t really say you’re a doctor or politician to people yet, but you could still say you’re a healer or a liar…
Instead of asking yourself what you want to be, ask yourself who you are and what you value. Take an inventory of your strengths and personality traits. Then reflect on what kind of effect and difference you’d like to make in the world. While the answers to these questions are open to change throughout your life, they will stay a lot more consistent than “what you want to be.” In addition, they’ll invite you to explore a lot more opportunities that will help you act on your values.
Years after my high school graduation, I finally figured out part of my life. Some of my main values are educating people, inspiring people, and empowering people. When I leave this world, I want it to be a more loving, compassionate, understanding, forgiving, and connected place. I act on these values by mixing some careers together: teacher, counselor, consultant, writer, filmmaker, juggler, entertainer. These titles may change—and I may encounter new ones I like—but my values will always stay the same. My values are soaked into all of these fields. In all my art, I’m always teaching about love and compassion. Even as a juggler, I strive to dazzle my audience and make them laugh together. In a sense, I hope they are connected during my act and can forget about their differences or worries for the day.
I think it’s perfectly fine, and probably even normal, to not know what you want to be. You have plenty of choices in the future, and you wouldn’t want to trap yourself into just one. But you need to always think about what gift you can give to the world.
Life is about acting on values, not chasing titles.
- by Nathan Chow
Boston University Class of 2009