“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
This question is almost always asked to children. Whether it’s to start a conversation or get the child thinking about their future, this simple question is actually a lot more complicated to answer than it looks. Take a 5-7 year old child for example. When asked this question, most boys that age would probably respond with an occupation that seems exciting like a pilot or a firefighter or even an astronaut. Conversely, most girls that age would probably say that they want to become a ballerina or an artist or perhaps a nurse.
Now, before you start ripping me apart about putting children into stereotyped gender roles, I would like to raise a point. No matter what occupation the child has chosen, it reflects what they think would be fun or exciting to do! I have never heard a child say that he/she wanted to become a chartered accountant or a bus driver. Why? It’s not because they think the job is boring or meaningless; rather they look for jobs in which they would enjoy!
Being of Indian descent, one of the most valued jobs in our culture is the doctor. I was always told as a kid that doctors were second only to God due to their ability to heal and make people well. Consequently, being a doctor in the Indian community meant that you would be well-respected and highly viewed. Another profession that is considered respectable is engineering and if one became an engineer, they would also be well-respected and well viewed. Granted, both professions take many years of hard work and dedication to your studies in order to achieve that status and I do not disagree with the idea that these professionals should be held in high regard.
As a child, however, I was told that I was expected to be a doctor when I grew up. I was not given any options to pursue or a chance to explore the world on my own. There was no vote or list of options I could choose from. But how could I? Little me had no idea what other important careers were available to me in this big inviting world full of opportunity and creativeness. I was stuck with my mundane vision of becoming a proper doctor and making my parents proud. (Of course, the supposedly big pay cheques doctors received was another reason why my parents drove me to become a doctor.) Now at the time, I was oblivious to the fact that an endless number of possibilities lay before me and that I could become anything I chose to be. Instead, I was brainwashed into thinking that being a doctor was the job for me. Each grade I entered I received the same speech, “Son, study hard and get good grades so you can become a doctor.”
See, the sad thing is though I was encouraged and pushed to be successful, I didn’t have the drive nor the motivation to pursue my goals because my goals were handed to me by my parents. As a child, I was pretty smart compared to your average primary school-er. I learned to read before some of my classmates had even finished the alphabet and math in primary school was, to put it simply, elementary to my young brain. Consequentially, I became lazy with my school work, just giving my teacher the answer to a problem where they were expecting a full proof. When they saw what I was doing, my parents asked me why I was giving such short responses. According to them, I said, “the teachers already know the answer so why should I explain it to them?”
Maybe I was really overconfident as a kid or maybe I was just bored with the work. Nevertheless, my work ethic was horrible since the beginning and I lacked the motivation to get a proper one in place. This followed me all through middle school and into high school. I would just cruise through assignments, not caring if I “only got an 80%” on my report cards. All this time, my parents would push me to do better. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the “you can do better son!” kind of encouragement that I was receiving. It was more along the lines of “Why aren’t you getting 100%? You are worthless and a waste of my time!” OK, OK fine they didn’t explicitly say I was worthless but it certainly felt that way.
Now there may be some that argue that negative reinforcement is good for children; that it pushes them to do better in order to please their parents. While this may be a popular tactic for many immigrant parents in order to motivate their children, it certainly didn’t help me realize that I could be better. On the contrary, it has caused me to be quite stubborn in my studies. The constant berating enabled me to develop a resilience to criticism by just passing advice off as empty words and so I ignored them.
Currently, I am dealing with an intense lack of motivation to complete my education and I struggle everyday to motivate myself to complete tasks. However, I cannot blame my parents for something they inadvertently pushed me towards. Instead, I am finding the drive within myself to discover what I wish to accomplish in life, whether it be the desire to pursue a different career path or (to my parents’ delight) actually becoming a doctor. No matter the direction, I am determined to become a person I can proudly stare at and say “Yup, it was worth the struggle.”
So to ask an individual what they want to be in life is to question their life decisions, their plans in both the near and far future and maybe even their decisions in the past. See it as a request to fit that individual’s life into a certain framework and realize that not everyone fits that design. Instead, ask after their aspirations, their goals and watch them glow with excitement as they explain to you their ideas and vision of life. Who knows, they may even change your personal outlook on life and motivate you to do more. All I ask is that you keep an open mind and aid those who lack the motivation to find that drive within themselves to do more and make an impact in society. As Greek philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis said