Stop Asking People "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

I get hammered with people asking me "what do you want to be when you grow up?", "where do you see yourself in the future", and questions of the same calibre.

It adds unnecessary stress to have a pre-planned response that follows the vanilla narrative of "go to university", "get X degree", "work in Y job". Many of my friends have similarly been pressured to form a cookie cutter response, but I've found no one's articulated that this is a problem, so I'm calling it out.

Bias for certainty

People tend to overweigh options that are certain, and are risk averse for gains. A study done by behavioural psychologist and Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman showed that if people were offered $900 for sure or a 90% chance to get $1,000, the great majority of people who choose a 100% chance of $900 despite a high probability of receiving 10% more money in the second option.

Our bias for certainty affects us in different forms from ordering the same item off the menu at a restaurant you've been to before to feeling fearful of what lies in the future.

Because friends and family feel this urge for certainty, it stems the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" from a young age. They feel relief when you give them an answer because it looks like you have your shit together. In fact we end up receiving more praise on our future plans if we say we want a career in medicine, law, business or engineering. Because people have artfully crafted a narrative that there's a 100% rate of success in these fields and all doctors, lawyers and engineers "end up rich, happy, and successful."

The issue with this bias is that it leads to people making quick-witted response to get people off their backs. We end up replying with uncommitted statements such as "I want to work as a nurse" without any foresight into what a career in nursing is like. And because people end up validating our plans as "he/she knows what they're doing" we stick with it, without exploring what could have been.

Labels vs Meaning

Another reason why the question "What do you want to be when you grow up" is flawed is because it's fixates your dreams and aspirations as a label or occupation and does little to address the purpose of work. It focuses on the answer being a specific profession.

Working as a manager at a multinational financial services firm is extremely different to working as a pro-bono manager for a charity. The roles you end up pursuing in your career will likely be driven by other factors such as salary, company culture, the projects you're assigned – making the question too one-dimensional for a meaningful response.

Choosing an industry, problem or mission to work is a better career starting point than targeting a certain occupation for that it: a) Doesn't lead you to choose a career based on loose generalisations of income or status, and b) Centres your plan around the type of work you engage in and the purpose of it. People spend on average 80,000 hours of their life working. Would you rather spend that time fixated on a job title or working on something makes an impact to you and others around you?

You're not "late"

The final metanarrative society has created is that if you don't know or if you haven't figured out your life plan by age 18, 25, 30, and many more arbitrary numbers –– you're late. We treat people that haven't figured out a plan as aimless vagabonds to be commiserated or "set on the right path".

The reality is that you're not "late" and the likely more fulfilling alternative is to wander through your uncertainty and find something that meets your needs and wants – rather than be in a rush to fit the status quo.

When I'm asked the question "What do I want to do in the future", I give a rough response. Such as "I'm interested in X", "Y that might be cool", etc. But to be honest, I don't know.

For show and tell when I was 5, I drew myself as a firefighter because there was a fire station a block away from where I lived. When I was 9, I said I wanted to be a lawyer because I was good at English and my mum said "lawyers help people". At 14, that changed to "a career in computing" because I thought learning Python at school was pretty neat. In the past year, it's changed many more times and I expect it to continue to shift and transform in the same way that people who are 50 end up transitioning to work they newly discover and now love.

Should I tell people "I don't know", I get responses like, "you're not reaching your full potential", or seem disappointed with the response. But the fact of the matter is that your career path will change. It's something non-linear and something inherently messy.

What should we do instead?

The question isn't entirely terrible. Most people that ask are well-intentioned and care about your future and it can be a decent starting point.

But if you're older and have experience in different careers and roles, share your journey instead. What exactly you do day to day? How did you end up where you are today? What do you enjoy most? What do you enjoy least? It would be more insightful than using this interrogation of a question.

And if you're a young person, it's fine to say "I don't know" so long as you're trying new things and following your curiosity.

I have no clue what I'm doing myself and many times it's frustrating. But at least I'm exploring the possibilities of the life I want to live.

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I write about my learnings in health, tech, and lifestyle design. I’m still navigating the journey of being a 20-something.

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