Have you asked this question? It gets asked all the time – to school children, to college students, to interviewees and to established professionals. It gets asked so often (in one form or another) that you’d expect everyone to always have an answer prepared. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. This question is almost always met with uncertainty, ambiguity, or in the worst cases – silence. But why? How could we all be so poorly prepared to answer this simple-sounding question?

Of course, we all know this simple-sounding question is actually very complicated. It is no small task to sum up everything we want from life in one short sound-bytable answer. Additionally, it may be easy for those of us who have our hearts set on becoming Doctors, Lawyers, or Astronauts – but many of us will end up working jobs we didn’t even know existed when we started looking for them.

It would be nice if we all always had an answer to this question, but the truth is – no one ever really knows what they want to be when they grow up. There are just too many options, possibilities and unexpected turns in the road, in essence, it is impossible to know.

So how do we answer this impossible question? I’d advise: If you don’t know what you want to do when you grow up, then guess. A certain answer will always get you farther than an ambiguous one – and there is no penalty for changing your mind.

Happy snow day!

(the view west from 14th Street and 3rd Ave, Manhattan)


What do you want to be when you grow up?
  • I’m not sure the answer to the question is complicated, per se, but – as you say – its articulation is difficult.

    How do you communicate, objectively, the way you’d like to feel “when you grow up”? After, that’s how the question is interpreted – what kind of person would you like to be, what kind of life would you like to have. But answers such as “wealthy” or “happy” are meaningless, because they don’t indicate anything.

    But I think the question is easier to decode when looked at from the other perspective – what the asker gets out of it. They really just want an idea about some of your interests, desires, and goals. It allows them to understand you a bit better. The point is not to be accurate – such forecasting is impossible – but rather to find out what direction you’re pointing in. You can think of it as a set: Prior to asking the question, the set (of possible interests/desires/goals/etc) is essentially infinite. After a (good) answer, the set is reduced dramatically. If you meet someone in a bar, you don’t know anything about them; if they then tell you that they want to be a marine biologist studying the coral reef in Australia, you have a very good idea of the interests, their desires, their long-term goals -> which allows you to fill in their near-term goals, contextualize their current statements, and extrapolate some of their past experiences.

    I guess my conclusion would follow yours – if you don’t know, make something up that ties together your current interests.