What do you want to be when you grow up? This is a question I love to ask new people I meet, especially women. It’s not a question they’re expecting, especially in this tense. Most of the time, people ask this question in the past tense: What did you want to be when you grew up? As grown-ups, we don’t often feel we have a choice in the matter since, after all, we’re already grown up. By asking this powerful question, the people I’m asking feel a spark of that excitement little kids get—and they’re eager to share their answers.
The next time you start a conversation with someone and aren’t sure where to start, this might be the best opening line ever.
The Future Is Changeable
When we ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” it means that we don’t have to be what we are right now forever. And I love that idea. I love knowing that what I am right now can change. I don’t have to be this forever—even though, at this moment, what I do is awesome. I love helping people tell their stories; I love being a writer.
But when you ask someone what they want to be when they grow up, they have to think about it. That’s because it’s ingrained in us that we are only ever going to be what we are right now. That there aren’t any other options. But there are lots of options! You can decide tomorrow that you want to be a baker, or a plumber, and nothing is stopping you! We can be anything!
“What Do You Want to Be” Is Your Legacy
So how does this question relate to legacy? When you—and others—answer the question of what do you want to be, you’re telling a part of your story. This question could be a wonderful journaling prompt if you like to journal. And if you haven’t started journaling yet, start with this question. Get reacquainted with yourself while you learn something new about yourself.
What do I want to be when I grow up? There are all kinds of possibilities, bam!, just like that. You feel positive, even elated, and you see the adventure of growing up, not just the bills and responsibilities.
That’s what I love about this question: We don’t have to feel crappy about what we’re doing, what we’re writing, or the way our lives have turned out because there is no past tense yet. There’s no past tense until we die. You can feel bad then, but if you’re still breathing, you have an opportunity to do the things you dream of doing.
Something to Think About
Think about when you were a little kid. What did you want to be then? Write that down. Why did you want to be that thing? Do you remember if your answer was influenced by something? Did you see someone doing that and it made you want to be that as well? What was the feeling you had about being that? When we think about what we want to be when we grow up, it’s often based on a feeling that we experienced when we first saw that thing.
We hold on to that feeling all the time, taking it through adolescence and off to college. We base our whole lives on that one feeling we had. Then, when we actually go do that thing, we can feel like we were misled. “Wait, is this what this is supposed to feel like? Do I have to stay here? It doesn’t feel right, like I felt about it when I was a kid. I want that good feeling.”
Consider that same question but when you were a teenager. Did your response change from when you were a little kid? If it did, why did it change? Did a new person or experience come into your life to change your answer?
Write Your Story
These are all parts of your story that you write down, and you will likely be able to fill a few pages on each of these timeline moments: childhood, teenage years, and college. Each could be separate pages or even separate chapters. Depending on your age, you can keep going with this idea, stopping in your 20s, 30s, 40s, and so on to capture those unique answers to “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
While the prompt here is the same at each age, it reframes the decades and years of our lives and provides an opportunity to retrospectively and introspectively look at how we were feeling about life then and get to know ourselves again. Maybe 20-year-old you was really what you wanted to be when you grow up, and now, at 60, you can go back and be that.
Stay in the Conversation
I hope this exercise helps you think about your life differently and start to write your story.
I look forward to hearing what you want to be when you grow up!