What are they? Limiting beliefs
When you were younger (shucks, maybe even still today) the adults in your life said all sorts of things to you that may have had a subtle impact you weren’t aware of at the time:
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Why would you do that?”
“(Your father/mother/God/etc.) isn’t going to like that…”
“How are you going to support a family doing that?”
It’s incredibly common to ask kids what they want to be someday, implying that their future career is essential to their identity. Organizational psychologist and author Adam Grant spells out the negative repercussions in his article on the topic:
“My first beef with the question is that it forces kids to define themselves in terms of work. When you’re asked what you want to be when you grow up, it’s not socially acceptable to say, “A father,” or, “A mother,” let alone, “A person of integrity.” This might be one of the reasons many parents say their most important value for their children is to care about others, yet their kids believe that top value is success. When we define ourselves by our jobs, our worth depends on what we achieve.” (Emphasis added)
There are a series of questions adults ask that impose specific value systems on kids when they are just beginning to learn what life is about, what their role in it is, and how to be loved. Several of these (often innocently) asked questions teach kids how to think about themselves and their futures in a way that can limit possibility.
Rico, a 13-year-old boy with 4 associate’s degrees, wisely responds to the question of how he will apply himself and his gifts ‘when he grows up’:
“’I’m 13 right now so I don’t really have the whole life thing figured out,’ Rico said, when asked what he wants to be when he grows up. ‘I’m still trying to explore my interests and learn what I want to do in life.’”
Given his unusual aptitude for success in the university system at such a young age, it’s likely that Rico has encountered a significant amount of pressure to “become something” and determine what he wants to do for work. One could imagine that the pressure to make such a decision early increases when kids show strong inclinations toward particular skills.
However, maybe Rico’s purpose(s) won’t have to do with the thing he does to make money. Maybe (and likely) his identity and the roles he will serve in his life are broader and more nuanced than a title on his resume.
We’re all inundated with ideas about the nature of purpose. The questions we ask tend to reflect and perpetuate these ideas.
Check out the Myths of Purpose page to find out what assumptions you may have and how they could be inhibiting your purpose development.
What to do about it: Ask different questions
Changing the questions we ask kids about themselves and their futures to ones that embrace possibility and the complex nature of our identities can encourage them to stop staking all their worth on a job title. Instead, these influential questions can support kids to accept their multi-dimensional natures. They can open themselves up to creating purpose not only in their jobs, but in their relationships, in their communities/societies, in their pastimes, and beyond.
Rewriting the Questions
What normally gets asked:
What do you want to be when you grow up?
What do you want to major in?
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Better things to ask:*
What kind of person would you like to be?
What would you like to do next?
What would you like to learn more about?
What problems would you like to solve?
Who do you look up to and why?
What is a valuable way to spend your time?
*Keep these questions open to consideration all your life!
Still want to ask kids specifically about paid work? Consider asking them the following question (in addition to those in the “better things to ask” list above) suggested by researcher William Damon who has focused his work on the development of purpose in youth:
“How can [you] earn a living as a valued member of society and make a positive difference in the world? These are questions that, sooner or later, all young people must confront in order to make their most crucial life choices.” – William Damon
Try This: Answer each set of questions and compare
Pull out a blank sheet of paper and divide it down the middle. On one side, answer the following questions as you might have answered them when you were younger.
- What do you want to be when you grow up?
- What do you want to major in?
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Next, answer the following questions on the other side of the page. You can answer them from the perspective of your younger self OR as yourself today, whichever feels most serving or interesting to you.
- What kind of person would you like to be?
- What would you like to do next?
- What would you like to learn more about?
- What problems would you like to solve?
- Who do you look up to and why?
- What is a valuable way to spend your time?
Finally, consider what it felt like to answer each set of questions. Jot down some descriptions of your experience in the relevant column, they can be as simple as one word answers like, “focused,” “open,” “challenging,” “exciting,” etc.
How do you think being asked questions in the first column impacted you as a kid? What might have been different if you had been asked the second set of questions?