What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Looking back at this post it might read like a rant but I promise you it isn’t. It just tries to question some of my own assumptions(:

If you’re old enough you’ve probably been asked or heard this question:

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I’ve come across multiple opinion pieces arguing against asking kids about what they want to become when they grow up and I mostly agree with them. However, I’ve never seen anyone questioning why do we ask young people and adults what did they want to be when they were growing up. This post is about why I think that asking this question is pointless and even counterproductive.

I will start by saying that I think that when people ask this question they mean well. People typically ask this question to figure out more about the person and their background. However, I think that the problem starts with the respondents answer.

Oversimplified Narratives

I truly believe that in 95% of cases any response to this question will yield an answer that’s either made up or heavily self-serving. People don’t like to seem stupid or shallow so they will naturally tend to make up a narrative that paints them in a good light. For example, people tend to default to traditional choices like choosing their parent’s profession or something that’s the complete opposite of what they’re currently doing (I think entrepreneurs tend to do this when they say they stumbled into the space).

Faulty Memory

Another issue with this question is that it can only yield incomplete answers even if the respondent is being 100% sincere. At least based on my own experience, if you asked me what I wanted to be while growing up I would say 1-2 things based on salient memories that I keep coming back every time people ask me this question. However, the more I think about it the more I realize that I’ve wanted to be dozens of different things at different points throughout my childhood. Some of these professions are things that I’ve wanted a lot more than becoming an architect like my dad or a diplomat based on interest in the UN in high school.

Cognitive Dissonance

There’s also the issue that this question is primed for creating cognitive dissonance in an individual. If your initial stated goals (e.g. I wanted to be a doctor when I was 5) don’t match your current behavior OR you don’t have a very good narrative for why you didn’t follow this path (e.g. I found my true passion for X), then I believe this question can create a significant amount of dissonance because deep inside you know that you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. I assume that most people don’t get to this level of self-introspection and that’s why this question tends to fly under the radar and not bother them (or everyone is very lucky to do what they wanted to do when they were 5!).

Moral Preference

For some reason I feel that when this question is asked there’s the assumption that your preferences as a child are more authentic and therefore a better indicator of your true self. In other words, who you actually wanted to be as a child and any deviation from that is lost potential.

A potential solution

I think that a better way to think about this question is to maybe ask people about what were some of their interests as a child? This gives people some room to show a range of interests instead of explaining and oversimplifying their thought process, which they themselves probably didn’t even think about when they were kids.