As a child, I vividly recall being questioned regularly about what I wanted to be when I grew up. At the age of 7, 11, even into my teens I really didn’t know for certain my answer to that question. I recognized though, that grownups were looking for a select group of elite responses.
Responding was like taking a multiple choice test: Choose “A” for doctor, Choose “B” for lawyer, “C” for teacher, or “D” for “honestly, I have not a clue!". Ha! No one ever chose “D”! A, B, or C were the only acceptable options.
For me, it was effortless to riddle off the ideal answer. “I want to be a doctor!” I always responded enthusiastically. I knew my answer was socially acceptable and financially gratifying to my family. As I reflect though, I can’t say for sure if I ever really knew what exactly I wanted to be. I can affirm, though, that I always knew I wanted to be smart. I knew I wanted to be successful, generous, humble, confident, and I knew for sure that I wanted to have fun in life.
I knew who I wanted to be well before I knew what I wanted to be.
When I began writing this article I thought about the words: who and what. While both are pronouns, they have different implications. When someone says, “who”, we tend to automatically think: person. When someone says, “what”, we often infer that the reference is to a “thing” or "object". I don’t know about you, but I never wanted to grow up to be a thing. I may not have known at the time what title or position I wanted as an adult, but I knew I wanted to be human. “What makes us human is not our mind but our heart, not our ability to think but our ability to love.” The late Henri Nouwen, author and Dutch Catholic Priest, had it right. It's our heart that truly makes us human.
Today, as I think about the shifts in our world politically, socially, and economically, I contemplate whether it even matters at the ages of 3, 5, 11, and well into the tweens and teens what children say they aspire to become as adults. I think it’s more important that they grow to understand who they are and who they desire to become.
After establishing that FIRST, the what will come naturally.
We live in a world that’s so inhabited by titles that it’s become increasingly difficult for both children and adults to discern passion and purpose.
We’ve placed kids in job and career boxes like doctor, lawyer, teacher (all great and influential careers) but we can’t forget about the future missionary who aspires to bring hope to foreign, impoverished lands. We can’t disregard the idea of the philanthropist and social entrepreneur who starts a business providing digital books to children in homeless shelters. We can’t dismiss the teenager aspiring to remove the term, "plus size", model debunking the myth that beauty is a size 2. Those are careers that we don’t teach children to pursue because we think too much about the what instead of the who.
What could happen if we taught kids (and adults too for that matter) to align their what (careers, job titles) with their who instead of vice versa. Could we become a world full of people walking, living and breathing passion and purpose? Maybe.
We’ve become a culture so dependent on titles that we forget there are actual people growing beneath those surface level positions and job titles that we eagerly anticipate them holding as adults.
As an educator, I completely understand that we have the responsibility of preparing students for life after high school whether that means college or career. But is that all there is to life? Do we expect our children and students to live a life confined to work? If we are truly preparing children for life, maybe we should be cultivating integrity in our students and teaching them to be ethical. We should implore them to pursue justice. They should learn what it means to have grit and be able to problem solve. Those are skills kids can use in any aspect of life. Life is more than work. Life is an overwhelming roller coaster that is fast, drops unexpectedly, and ends ever so quickly. It takes more than just job preparation to prepare you for that! It takes character. It takes the who inside of you, not just the what.
Let’s start digging a little deeper with our kids, our students, our tiny neighbors. Let’s begin helping them prepare and nurture the who inside of them. The what will come, go, and evolve over time, but the person our children become, the who, will last forever.
Find your voice. Share it. Encourage others to do the same!