What d'you want to be when you grow up?
Sam Wilson isn’t sure yet. Are you? So why do we expect kids to know?
Someone once asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, when I was still a very little person. I remember it very clearly, as I was incredibly proud of myself for having an answer ready.
‘I am going to be happy!’ I said, flushed with my philosophical success.
‘No, silly,’ asked the adult in question. ‘I mean what do you want to BE?’
I was a bit thrown by this.
‘A happy me?’ I hazarded.
Tongue-clicking from the adult. ‘No, Sammy... I mean what do you want to do as your job?’
‘Oh, that!’ I said, finally clicking into her train of thought. ‘I’m going to use test tubes to invent a new colour. A beautiful colour that no-one’s ever seen before.’
‘Well, all the colours, have already been discovered so you’ll have to pick something else. You know, like a doctor, or a lawyer or a vet or a teacher.’
I remember being bitterly disappointed; a world where there were no colours left to discover didn’t sound like a world that I really wanted to live in. Also, it was already clear to me that being happy was not something to dismiss lightly. I had seen adults trying to be happy, with greater and lesser amounts of success... and it looked like quite a difficult and important pursuit.
Clearly though, if I wanted to be a successful grown up, I was going to have pick one thing to be and it had to sound like a useful thing, not so much a fun thing.
No one did anything to challenge this acquiescence, so in due course, I became a lawyer. And, in much the same way, Andreas became a scientist. Because if you are good at exams, your options – paradoxically enough - feel rather limited.
Last week, I was paging through Joey’s Life Orientation book, and I saw that he’d been asked to write about his parents and their professions. He’d written the following: Mommy was a lawyer but she stopped because it made her sad.
‘Gosh, that’s very well summed up, Joe,’ I remarked. ‘And do you know why Daddy stopped working as a scientist?’
‘Because there was nothing left to discover?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Because he got bored being alone with his machines, when you were so much more interesting. Working out how to make some money, but spend much more time with you, seemed like a much important thing to discover.’
And while Joey got that, I could see that he’s still a little attracted to the perceived kudos of being able to say his parents are a scientist and a lawyer, rather than hodgepodge journalists, who have a tendency to dabble in satisfyingly unusual things that make very little money.
Embracing my weak points
Another thing I’ve noticed, is all the things that I’ve always been told are my weak points – being over-enthusiastic about too many things at the same time, getting over-invested in things, being too loud, too over-sharey, too prone to jump from one thing to another – are all the things that I like about myself and that make me good at my current job.
And all the things that made me a good lawyer – being argumentative, quite full of myself, silver-tongued and incredibly bossy – are all the parts of myself I’d really rather work down, rather than up.
I am pretty fond of my current job, but I am not married to it... as I am the focus of my life, not what I do. And while I may not have discovered a colour yet, I have made a few brave but tentative forays into unchartered territories and who knows; maybe a new colour will spill out of my pen one day.
But in the meantime, I am making damn sure that every time Joey or Ben regale me with what they are going to be when they grow up – ‘A fireman! No, a professional footballer! A cartoonist! A builder!’ – I always say...
‘Be whatever you want, my boys. Just be sure that it makes you happy.’
Isn’t it scary how little society stresses happiness to our children?
Read more by Sam Wilson