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The One Question to Stop Asking Kids… and Ourselves


Think back to when you were a kid in the presence of adults. I’ll bet I can predict the question you were asked more than any other.

 What do you want to be when you grow up?

From a very early age, I remember the adults around me regularly making this inquiry. For a while, the answer was a ‘majorette in a band’. Then I aspired to being an ‘elevator operator’ before graduating to ‘teacher’.  I always received the best response to ‘doctor’… so I stuck with that for quite a while.

And so my training began. I learned that work and success were all about these artificial labels. You probably did too. As a result, our default settings point to titles when we consider career objectives or accomplishments.

Tangled in Titles

The problem is that this kind of title-based career thinking is completely inconsistent with today’s business landscape.

  • The narrow focus sets us up for a sense of failure and frustration because the specific positions we might have in mind may not be available when we feel that we’re ready for them.
  • Given the fluidity of today’s business and organizational environments, the positions we have our hearts set on might be eliminated before we ever ready ourselves for them. (Imagine my disappointment that elevators now operate themselves!)
  • New technologies, innovations, and possibilities are always evolving; yet myopic attention to a particular title on a business card or door blinds us to the opportunities.

But most importantly, the pleasure of arriving in the desired position is fleeting. The joy and excitement pass very quickly. Then, what are you left with? Doing the hard work associated with the role.

Develop a Snapshot of Success

Perhaps it’s time to stop focusing on what we want to ‘be’ and instead shift our attention toward what we want to ‘do’. Maybe we should start asking kids – and ourselves – about what success looks and feels like.

I like the idea of thinking of someone’s definition or vision of success as a snapshot that develops, evolves, and becomes clearer over time.  But getting at the heart of this requires some updated, more multi-dimensional and nuanced questions:

What will career success look and feel like to you?

What kind of work will you be doing?

What will you accomplish? What difference will you make?

What kind of people will you work with?

What kind of working conditions will serve you?

What talents, skills, and strengths will you leverage?

Unbundling career success from a specific position ensures that people don’t become pigeon-holed or slotted into a track.  And, it opens everyone’s (employees and leaders) eyes to considerably more opportunities.

So, the next time a child tells you that she wants to be an astronaut, ask a few questions to get beyond the ‘be’ and explore the ‘do’… and open up a universe of possibilities.

What about you?  What’s your ‘do’? What’s your snapshot of career success?

Image:,, and Liz Price


  1. As a child I answered that question: Garbage man (they got to ride on the backs of trucks – very cool), teacher, doctor, marine biologist (life has proven that I wouldn’t have done well with that – I get seasick far too easily, even IN the water), archaeologist, and missionary.

    Of the list, the only one I followed through on was the last – and even that didn’t stick as long as I was expecting it to. 🙂 In fact, up until last year, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do – but when people would ask me what my dream job was, I described what I’m doing now with Weaving Influence. Incredible how that worked out! 🙂

    • Well, Carrie, I am certainly glad that you found your dream job… and that I get to work with you as a result. (And I’d say that depending upon the day, you likely get to do a little from all of those early aspirational roles… except marine biologist!) Thanks for commenting.

  2. Julie,

    Love this post! It’s true – narrowly defining “what” we want to be leads to confusion and disappointment in our careeers.

    Not sure what this says about me as a kid, but my parents tell me that I never aspired to a specific job. “You kept your options open, I guess” my mom once told me 🙂

    • Sounds like your mom was a very wise woman. But, of course… look at how you turned out!! As we raise our own kids, we should follow that lead… help them figure out what they love, the kinds of environments that nourish them, the kinds of people they want to work with, etc…. all the of ‘do’ stuff. The what takes care of itself when we’re clear about the rest.

  3. I was a very introverted and shy child. I was scared of people and especially to stand in front of the class for orals. I decided to become a veterinarian. My dad thought it a waste of time for a girl to study for so many years, then get married and raise kids.

    I then joined the army and nursing was one of the things we had to do. I decided to make that my career. I was a general nurse, then a midwife, then primary health care, in rural areas, which changes my worldview completely. Then I ended up being a nurse educator…and conquered my fear of public speaking. I am now practising as a human resources development manager and has never stopped studying. What will I do next? Maybe go back to taking care of animals!!!There are no limits to what you want to do if you really want to do it.

    • What a great journey, Erika. Thanks for sharing it… and sharing your talents and sense of caring with the world. Loved your line about having never stopped studying. Learning throughout one’s entire life is so important. Good luck… with the animals and whatever else you decide to take on!

  4. Julie:
    Your post is perfect timing and a great reminder as my daughter graduates from high school in a few months and the regular question from most people we see is “what is your major and then the follow-up question is “how did you “pick THAT major?” She has gone thru two majors and hasn’t even started college yet. The journey continues. 😉

    • So great to hear from you, Judy! What an exciting time… for your daughter and you. As one whose son has recently finished college, I can tell you the journey (and mind-changing) continues. Good luck… to you both!


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