What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

At the age of 25, I am a chemist.  When I was 22, I wanted to be a physicist.  When I was 20, I wanted to be a chemistry teacher.  When I was 17, I wanted to be a music teacher.  When I was 12, I wanted to be a marine biologist.  When I was 6, I wanted to be a dinosaur.

Okay I don’t really know how “dinosaur” progressed into “marine biologist”, but just go with it.

If you missed my post about how I became a chemist, the important part is that I did not start college with that intent.  Not in the slightest.  I grew through my interests, and changed my goals as I learned about them and myself.

College was my first real opportunity to do that.  All through high school and middle school I was constantly bombarded (and you probably were too) with questions about what I wanted to do with my life and pressured to start choosing a path so I could be put into the right classes.  There were personality and aptitude tests, guidance counselors and “Career Discovery” classes, all telling you what you were good or bad at, all telling you that you had to make a decision that would affect you for the rest of your life.

Does no one see the flaw in this?  You’re asking people who are at an age where they’re still arguing about allowance and curfew to decide what they want as a career.

The system is set up so that you can’t really jump paths in the middle.  When I was in high school I really wanted to take the jewelry metal-working class, but I couldn’t because I “wasn’t in an eligible track”.  I had to fight tooth and nail to take a ceramics class.  An art student friend of mine wanted to take AP Biology, but was told no for the same reason.  It’s not that my high school was special.  With all the moving I did, I have been a part of 4 different school systems, all in different states, and they all worked the same way.

Surely someone must have seen the correlation.  We continue to slip educationally in the world, while pushing these dedicated class tracks to younger and younger grade levels.  In our futile attempt to reclaim our standing as an educational leader, we’ve just led ourselves deeper into the whole.  Studying more intensively younger is not the key here.  While I won’t touch the argument of how to fix our educational system, I will say that I think it’s pretty obvious we need to stop pushing this idea that someone who we won’t even allow to drive yet needs to choose what they want their entire adult life to look like.

My mom still says she doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up.  I’m pretty sure my sister still doesn’t.  It took me running a gambit to decide for myself.  A good number of the industries and job types available today didn’t even exist when we were in school.  School needs to be about exploring what’s available, exploring your interests, and exploring your talents.  The gates need to come down, and kids need to be able to experience different things before they reach a point where it’s too hard and too expensive to have those same experiences.

I was lucky and found my niche through universal intervention, but it shouldn’t take chance to be afforded the opportunity to find what you love.

Does anyone else wonder what “Success Kid” will be when he grows up?

I think all of this is good evidence to support getting rid of all the career focused paths in middle and high school.  It pigeons people into pathways that may not fit them, and that they may not be interested in down the line.  You miss out on experimenting with different interests, and I think the tendency of schools to try to get kids to decide what they want to do with their lives at younger and younger ages is why so many people end up unhappy with their jobs so quickly.  I think “what do you want to be when you grow up?” is an important question, but I don’t think we should have so much stake in the answer.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?


Posted on September 17, 2012, in Growing Up, Life, Work and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I wanted to be a paleontologist (age 8 or so) then a veterinarian or a marine biologist (age 10 or so), then a veterinarian (age 16), then a veterinarian or a PhD scientist (age 21 – though I guess PhD was sort of always a possibility back in my mind because both of my parents have PhDs). I guess the PhD scientist won but sometimes I wonder if I should have done vet school instead…

    I was lucky and they didn’t have tracking at our school but it really upsets me. I like how most schools have tracking (so you are limited in the types of classes you can take) and there are Montessori schools (where it sounds to me like you can be like “I hate math so I won’t take any even though I want to be a doctor when I grow up” and they will say “Okay cool! Just take whatever you feel like taking…”). What about something in the middle to encourage your curiosity about learning but also give you the classes you need to help you get to do whatever it is you want to do?

    • I actually have a friend in vet school. Of all the degrees she’s done (and she’s done quite a few), she’s saying this is the most stressful and she’s wishing she had gone the PhD biologist route. Completely opposite of you. I find that kind of funny in a “wow small world” kind of way!

      That’s awesome you didn’t have the tracking. I don’t know if I just ended up in all the wrong places or if not-tracking is in the minority, but I definitely agree we should really find some sort of middle ground. Neither system on its own seems to completely work.

  2. I went to a small private school for high school (36 people in my graduating class), so there definitely wasn’t tracking there. We had certain required classes every year, but beyond those you could take whatever you were qualified for that fit in your schedule. The public high school I would have gone to if I hadn’t transferred to private school in eighth grade had tracking, but not nearly as strict as what you had. Theirs was basically the college-bound track and a couple of different vocational tracks.

    I changed my mind about what I wanted to be many, many times. In middle school, I was dead set on the military. In high school, I wanted to do music, sound engineering, or sound effects in film. In college, I went from East Asian studies to computer science to a film and Middle East and Asian studies double major until I finally had to choose between graduating or pursuing something else and stuck with just Middle East and Asian studies. Unfortunately, I was too intimidated by the hard science courses at Columbia (or rather, being graded on a curve with people who had already scored 5’s on the AP in the subject) to take any of those, so when I thought I might want to go to med school it was too late to make up all of the requirements. I mostly ended up in law school because it seemed like the best option for someone who’s not really qualified for anything other than more education.

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