What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? [or misleading questions.]

What do you want to be when you grow up?  

This question eternally echoes from classroom walls.  We inspire our children to dream and not hold back as the possibilities are infinite.  

I want to be a rock star.

I want to be a football player.

I want to be an Olympic skier.

I want to be a doctor.

I want to be a movie director.

I want to be President.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

This question may still reverberate for those lucky enough to retire and figure out what life becomes post-employment.  Now that work is no longer a necessity, what activities will occupy one’s time?  Bucket lists are created.  Vacations and projects and hobbies fill the calendar.  Maybe we chase those skills we couldn’t while working.  

I want to be a writer.

I want to be a woodworker.

I want to be a cellist. 

I want to be a world traveler.

I want to be a culinary artist.  

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Our traditional responses are laid on the foundation of action and activity.  Unflinchingly, we define ourselves by our abilities, skills and paying job.  We validate our existence by them and display over and again how we are a positive contributor to society at large.  We are measured by performance and use social media as self-promoting tools to stack the deck in our subjective favor.  

But what if a good life is more than just activity?  What if we can be defined beyond verbs?

As a father, a source of major anxiety is that my choices have hindered my children from becoming all they could.  In the first few years living in Oregon, my wife and oldest daughter became members of the local rock climbing gym.  I nicknamed my daughter spider girl as I watched her gracefully negotiate each hold, showing no fear as she easily navigated her way to the top of so many challenging runs.  One of the gym employees strongly encouraged my wife and I to sign her up for the competitive youth team.  My wife and I looked at the price tag, looked at the scheduling, and declined.  

If we would have said “yes” would she be on her way to climbing professionally, with sponsors?  I’ll never know.  Did she miss becoming what she could be?  Maybe.  Did we deny her an opportunity to become successful? 

Well, that depends on how you define success.

What do you want to be when you grow up?  What if it’s the wrong question that subtly validates our cultural importance of vocation and notoriety and success and salary?  

In its place, what if we asked “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”

Be prepared for blank stares.  Or the similar answers to the initial question.

“Who” focuses on being.  On character.  Virtues of life that transcend any activity.  You can be an amazing musician, athlete, politician, actor, physician, or rock climber.

And still be a jerk. 

Is that really a successful life? 

“Who” is the overlooked though primary foundation, for we discover a person’s heart and soul by how they treat others during any activity.  Our myopic overinflation of activity can mistakenly and destructively distract us from our humanity.

We know how to train specific skills.  We all can find coaches and mentors and takes classes to develop specific skills. The internet has made any skill training easily accessible.

How do we develop character?  Well, those thoughts are for the next entry…

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