5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Answering ‘What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up?’

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Hannah Berman175
June 12, 2024 at 7:48PM UTC

On a recent trip to visit my family, the clock struck 9:00 and I was given the duty of putting my eight-year-old cousin to sleep. He’s a very picky kid, so when I told him that we would be reading one of my personal favorite children’s books, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss, he put up a little bit of a fight. Despite his repeated pleas to "read" the Pokémon handbook again, his will was no match for mine; I insisted that Dr. Seuss was the only book I was willing to read, and he eventually allowed me to begin. Soon enough, he was smiling and snuggling with a stuffed Bulbasaur toy under his covers to the rhythm of Dr. Seuss’ ever-genius rhyme scheme. 

"You're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So...get on your way!"

As I finished, his brow was furrowed. I imagined that he might be thinking very deeply until he opened his mouth to ask, “What was that book about?”

Laughing a little, I responded, “The future! It’s a book about what you’ll be when you grow up and how you’ll find your way there.” 

“But how old will I be when I grow up?” 

That was a much harder question to answer. Even now, as an adult, I still don’t feel like I've really grown up. Through my cousin’s eyes, I was a grown-up, yet through my own, I was still essentially a child, clueless and naive. No matter at what point you find yourself in life, it's hard to feel like you're allowed to label yourself a grown-up; each of us still has many arbitrary benchmarks to pass, and seldom do we feel mature enough to handle all that life may throw at us. My cousin was still sitting there expectantly, so I gave him the most honest answer I could: “I don’t know!” 

How do I choose a career?

Many people consider the moment you start your career as the beginning of your adult life, the exact moment that officially designates you as a grown-up. It makes a certain degree of sense; after all, when you’ve started a career, you’re newly able to provide for yourself, and at that point, you could conceivably buy a house, get married, have children, etc. 

Of course, just because you’re starting a career doesn’t mean that you feel like a grown-up. Beginning the rest of your life can make you feel stranded and afraid, and the act itself of choosing a career can inspire the exact same childlike feelings. When joining the "real world," many people struggle because they want to find a career that plays to their strengths, helps them reach the economic status to which they want to belong and fulfills the image they always had of their future — a difficult balance to strike. Choosing a career is a big moment and may well be the entryway to true adulthood, but luckily it doesn't mean you have to give up on your dreams. 

Determine whether your dream can be a career.

When I was my cousin’s age, I made my own “What should I be when I grow up?” list, which included such aspirations as a ballerina and an astronaut. Those professions are definitely possible careers, but for me, at least, they constituted passing fancies — I cried my way through four weeks of ballet classes, realized that astronauts have to eat dried food all the time and gave up on both of those dreams. Such specific careers probably will not translate well to your mindset as an adult, since few people retain their wish to become princesses past high school; however, more serious childhood passions that can be used more broadly in the workplace can easily become part of your life as an adult. 

5 questions to ask yourself to get started.

1. What are your core skills and talents?

A frank self-analysis is necessary when considering your true skills and talents. Are you actually good at the things you want to do? How much practice would it take for you to get to a stage wherein you feel comfortable calling your talent a core skill? 

2. What were your childhood passions and dreams?

Make a list. Your dreams as a child might have been wild and outlandish, and you might have moved on from some of them, but the likelihood is that some dreams remain both desirable and achievable if you can motivate yourself to start working toward them. 

3. Who in your possible field intrigues you?

Having someone to look up to in your possible field can be extremely helpful when considering a career. Not only could a contact help you find ways to infiltrate your field, but it’s also helpful to have a role model whose path you can mimic. 

4. Can you map out at least five ways to get there?

If your dream requires a very specific training process, it’s going to be harder to accomplish. If you can think of at least five ways to reach your goal, however, there will be less standing in your way, and you’ll be less disappointed if one of your steps doesn’t work out how you planned.

5. What is the smallest next step you could take in the direction that is calling to you?

Working towards your dreams is not always about planning out your whole life several years in advance. Sometimes it’s just about browsing LinkedIn, dropping a class or signing up for singing lessons. The smallest next step is the easiest one to take. 

Stay flexible and open to new ideas.

It’s important to stay flexible on this journey. Saying goodbye to foolish dreams is hard, but if you remain closed-minded and focused on only one goal, it’s likely that you’ll end up flaming out. Accomplishing the exact dream you had as a child would be cool, but it’s not always realistic. Accept reality and stay open to new ideas that occur to you along the way or new opportunities that fall into your lap. There is more than one destiny available to you.

My cousin currently wants to become a Pokémon duelist. I don't think it'll pan out for him exactly like he envisions it; it’s not the most realistic dream. However, the skills that he develops while researching different Pokémon could be useful in a whole bunch of fields — from battle strategist to veterinarian, from researcher to coder — and there are many careers in which he could thrive due to skills he is cultivating right now. For that reason, when I told him that I didn’t know when he would officially be a grown-up, I added, "You get to figure that out for yourself." It's true: you don't need to have all the answers when you start your career or even 10 years into it. Like my cousin, you get to forge your own path to adulthood. Maybe that means allowing your childhood dreams to become your career; maybe it doesn't. Either way, you're the one who decides when to call yourself a real-life grown-up. 

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