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Why We Should Stop Asking Our Kids "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

Why We Should Stop Asking Our Kids “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

by Donna Thrash, Career Coach, LMHC

As part of a year-end class project, my son, along with 90 or so of his fellow 5th grade peers recorded for all of posterity his answer to the following question, “what you do you want be when you grow up?”

The girls’ proudly declared their ambitions to become veterinarians, dancers or singers while the boys envisioned careers as video game designers, pro basketball players or engineers.

The question at face value is innocent enough; although it seems to be asked with all seriousness at increasingly younger ages. But, here’s why we should stop asking the “what do you want to be?” question, and move on to better questions.

  1. The question assumes that there is one perfect job or career for us.

We know the world of work is rapidly changing. Perhaps one of the biggest shifts has been the transfer of loyalty that once existed between employer and employee to the new normal; the relationship that exists between employee and self & career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and countless articles and studies, Americans on average will change jobs 11 times, and careers twice during a lifetime. And a study conducted by business networking site, LinkedIn cites that young adults will change jobs 4 times during their first decade post college.

So why all the change? There are many factors at play but regardless of the why, the belief that there is one perfect job waiting for us is akin to thinking that there is one perfect soul mate. A client once stated with regret, “it’s time I figure out what I want to be when I grow up”. My client, a military spouse, followed her husband across the globe from assignment to assignment, raising their children and taking jobs where she could. Her belief that she had somehow failed to be all she could be because she did not have a career of her own was driven by the faulty thinking that if we do not fulfill the pledge made as children to become something, we have somehow failed.

Maybe there is not one perfect job or one perfect career. The Harvard Business Review reports that millennials see themselves as consumers of the workplace, shopping around for jobs that best align with their current needs, interests and goals. What millennials are less interested in occupational title and more interested in finding opportunities that allow them to learn and grow and to work for managers that are invested in their professional development.

  1. It assumes a myopic view of work and careers.

I worked wth a client who wanted to transition from her 15+ year career as a chef; long hours, bad schedules and hard on your feet. She had a degree in fine art, is a military veteran, worked as a veterinary assistant, art gallery owner and bartender. My client felt her vocational choices were as varied as they came; not able to see the common thread that bound each of her former occupations. We tend to gravitate toward work that is aligned with our interests, skills and talents. which form the foundation upon which occupational interests lie.

According to John Holland’s theory of career choice, we are most satisfied and engaged when doing work that is aligned with our two or three dominant personality themes. The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), developed under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Labor is the nations largest and primary source of occupational data. Each of the over 900 occupations are organized around Holland’s six occupational themes or interests; Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising and Conventional. People with a dominant Realistic Theme for example enjoy solving problems by hands on activity and typically enjoy working wth machines, tools, objects and animals, while those with a high Artistic Theme enjoy solving problems using innovation and creativity.

Remember my client, the chef? Each of her seemingly disparate occupations called upon two of her highest themes; Artistic and Realistic. How is this understanding helpful? Rather than pigeon hole people into selecting a “perfect fit” vocation, it might be more helpful to understand the why behind what we enjoy doing or what energizes us.

  1. It can drive school college and career readiness programs to focus on setting students up to chase rapidly changing and increasingly elusive work.

With the rapidly shifting occupational landscape driven by technology, artificial intelligence, robots, globalization, etc. can today’s schools really keep pace? Perhaps we need to redefine career readiness as students in the pipeline will likely face an uncertain future. While career readiness mandates the acquisition of job specific skills and knowledge, career readiness must also include the development of human skills such as the ability navigate change, coping and resilience skills, critical thinking and problem solving skills and the mindset of lifelong learning.

We Need To Ask Better Questions

The question, “what do you want to be when you grow up” is a one dimensional question that assumes there is one perfect job out there and does not get at the why we gravitate toward some types of work over others.

Children (and adults) should be asked,

  • How do you solve problems? Do you prefer to work alone or with others? Do you prefer to follow a plan or trial and error.

  • How do you make decisions? Do you consider what is fair or what is just? Do you go with your gut or use logic and reason?

  • How do you take in information from the world around you? Do you use your intuition and instincts or do you trust what you see and hear?

  • What are you interested in? What books do you read, movies? What do you do in your free time?

  • What would you love to do if you could not fail?

  • What types of activities can you loose yourself in?

The resulting self-awareness will indeed help you create a career roadmap, where you are the driver and the navigator. Stop offs at one place or another along the journey will be an intentional detour, short cut, weigh point, or sightseeing excursion.

In a workshop I conduct for job seekers over 50, I ask, “what did you dream of becoming when you were a child?” Fewer than 10% of participants report ever doing the work they dreamed of as a child. Are then the vocational aspirations of a child simply fantasy? Not really. Upon further questioning, I discover that while most never became what they once dreamed of becoming, they did engage in work that tapped into the same occupational theme profile. Those who dreamed of being nurses often found themselves as teachers or personal care aids. Veterinarians became biologists while flight attendants became legal secretaries.

When we start asking better questions, we gain a better understanding of what we enjoy doing and why we enjoy it. The what and the why become threads that binds all the seemingly disparate jobs together into a logical and cohesive pattern of choices. Once we know the what and the why, we can begin to see our career as a fluid and dynamic part of who we are and will be better equipped to successfully engage in and navigate an ever shifting career landscape.

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