Here are your only valid choices. (Please note: If you don’t achieve one of these professions by your mid-twenties, you are a hopeless loser.)
t’s an impossibly future-focused question…
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
No one ever thinks of herself as grown up. “Grown up” is always something that comes tomorrow. It’s an idealized, fictional concept of adulthood. We are never “grown up,” because a human being is a constant process and (unlike a painting or a photograph) is never in a finished state.
It is a question about career, and yet it asks what you want “to be,” not what you want “to do part of the time in order to earn money.” The question betrays a bias in our culture. It’s as if we thought astronauts were altogether different types of beings than nurses, school teachers, construction workers, or mall cops. We define people by their jobs, as if the specializations we adopted somehow changed our identities and transformed us into different species. We pressure children to metamorphosize into one or the other type of being.
When children are asked this question, they are often presented a completely unrealistic menu of choices. There are careers we idealize (astronauts, movie stars, rock stars, sports stars, senators, presidents, mega CEOs, best selling authors, doctors, lawyers). But our ideals are far from reality. It turns out that these jobs, even if you can get them, are mostly just as tedious as other jobs, and that other jobs can be just as rewarding (or much more rewarding). Moreover, it turns out that defining yourself by your job is a horrible idea.
It seems that every year another celebrity dies from a prescription drug over-dose. It’s no secret that they’re self-medicating anxiety and depression. Why hasn’t their celebrity cured them of their unhappiness? Is it possible that being a star does not make you happy?
If that’s true for movie stars and rock stars, could it also be true for the other professions we idealize?
Yes. Did you know that doctors have the highest suicide rate of any profession? Auto mechanics are statistically more likely to be happy than doctors.
Of all the billions of people current living, and the over 100 billion who have ever lived, only twelve human beings have touched foot upon the moon. They are a rare breed even amongst astronauts. It is well documented that Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, suffered for decades from clinical depression. He achieved the unlikeliest of dreams, made history in the process, and became not just a celebrity but an icon. If such massive success did not cure Buzz Aldrin of depression then it won’t cure you, either.
The over-emphasis on career in our culture is inimical to human happiness, because the premises are so completely off-base. Seeking happiness through career doesn’t work because the entire approach is based on complete falsehoods.
You are not your job.
If you believe people are their jobs, then you also believe the following:
- If you are bad at your job, you are a bad person.
- If your job is unimportant, you are unimportant.
- People are not equal to each other. There are better and worse jobs, so there are better and worse people.
- To be a worthwhile person you need to have an extraordinary job and be good at it. Otherwise you are a loser.
- You should respect people with better jobs and disrespect people with worse jobs. You should see human worth on a sliding scale, and divide people into castes.
- It doesn’t matter how you treat other people, or animals, or the planet, or even yourself. All that matters is that you are “successful” in your job.
- The only place you have anything worthwhile to contribute to the world is a work environment.
Imagine that one day in the future, work-for-money becomes unnecessary. Our species discovers ways of producing the energy, goods, and services we need, in sustainable and ethical ways, without requiring labor. There are no jobs. There is no need for charity, because every person has their needs met without requiring such intervention. Everyone lives in comfort and is provided such high quality healthcare that it is normal to live an extremely long, fully functional, disease-free life.
How would you spend the time of your life, in such a scenario? Would life be pointless if labor were not required for your own survival or the survival of others? Or would it still be possible to derive a great deal of satisfaction from life?
We would still be human animals, and so we’d still have all the same instincts and proclivities. We’d still wish to busy ourselves with this and that. We’d still want to form fulfilling relationships. Perhaps people would come to identify themselves by their hobbies instead of their professions, and make the mistake of anxietizing about those instead. But the end of labor would rob potency from the broken notion of worth, a notion that causes much suffering, and so would ultimately contribute to mental health. Currently, we try to earn our way to worthiness by what we do. In a world without labor or scarcity, we would be forced to acknowledge that our worth must not come from our professions or possessions, and perhaps we’d go so far as to abolish the notion of worth itself.
Jobs are not evil things. They put bread on the table. They get us out of the house and out of our heads, and bring us into contact with the outside world. They provide us opportunities to make friends and to grow as people. They give us the money we need to live the lifestyles we want.
And as long as jobs are necessary, it is prudent to find a job that is well suited to your core preferences, so that you have an easier time maintaining your happiness while in your work environment. Building a career that puts you in a good position at retirement is wise, and it’s also wise – perhaps more so – to choose a career that gives you fulfillment along the way. If your work energizes you instead of depleting you, and brings you joy instead of misery, then of course that’s wonderful.
But you are not your job. You are you. At its very best, your job is just another environment where you get to express your you-ness. Therefore, in a very important sense what you do for a living doesn’t matter.
So as to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” the following slightly irreverent but completely valid answer is suggested:
I’ll be me, thank you very much.
-  Some of the best jobs are ones no one talks about, and they have deceptively boring sounding names ↩
-  Never mind that some resources would still be limited even in such a scenario, so that an economic system would still be necessary. It’s possible that in the future every human being will receive a comfortable and beautiful home. But some of those homes must be in less desirable locations; there are not enough beach-front homes for everybody to get one. Perhaps the natural beauty of the planet can be restored so that there is no location that is bad, but there’d still be some locations that are better. How do we determine who gets to live on the beach? It’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer, but put it aside for now. The point is not to design a utopia, but just to check whether any of our current notions about labor are self-defeating and unnecessary. ↩