What to be, or not to be, when we grow up…

A couple of months ago Motherese took up the question of what we parents might like to be when we grow up, framing things in the context of statistics that suggest that most of us have multiple careers across the span of our modern lives and lyrically looking at roads taken and not taken, particularly in the context of parenthood.

She mentioned playing the game of Life, back in the 80’s when lawyers making $50,000 was big bucks; and it made me think of reading about the president when I was in 4th grade and learning that, back in 1969, the man in the White House made the unbelievable sum of $50,000.

While I have had many different jobs and two fully-defined careers (with enduring curiosity about new paths to explore), I find myself thinking of child-mind and about the fantasies I had as a kid about what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I always found insects incredibly interesting and when I found out there was a name for scientists who studied insects, I just knew that I wanted to be an entomologist; I’m saddened to recall a conversation where my dad explained that entomologists didn’t make very much money, saddened to think about bursting the enthusiasms of a little kid with the irrelevant practicalities of life.  I still knew that I wanted to study insects; it would just have to be a hobby.  After our house partly burned down and a fireman literally carried me from the burning structure I made the natural choice to want to be a fireman—but my dad didn’t think there was enough money in that either.

Okay, I gave up.  What was I supposed to want to be?  What was it that made enough money?  My dad explained that business was about making money, and that I should want to be a “businessman.”  Clueless as I was, I began to picture myself in charge of the only business that could possibly interest me, and thus I cultivated a secret image of myself behind an absurdly large desk with smokestacks billowing out the window—not with toxic fumes but with the smells of cooking candy.  As owner of a candy factory, I imagined being in charge of all the candy I could want; this, I could picture, and desire (even though I never told anyone until this very blog post).

I’m sure other kids had the same idea, and I look back and see that it was all just a pathetic little Willy Wonka fantasy, but at the time I felt it to be deeply personal and original.  I could hardly contain my delight one afternoon when my mom’s dear friend presented us with chocolate covered ants.  Again, I look back to think this might have been a joke sort of candy, but I was first to try it, fully believing that I was combining my two loves—candy and insects.  “High in protein,” she assured me, smiling with what I now look back to see as stage eyes at my mom.

I hung onto my tepid notions of becoming a businessman all the way through the first day of my first marketing class in college (a class I’d had to qualify for with a good mark in calculus).  After one lecture in which the professor explained that marketing was not at all about being creative, it was just about selling things—even about selling worthless things to people who didn’t need them.  I felt like Dorothy betrayed by that old huckster Wizard and went running to my soon-to-be mentor, to confess that I really wanted to be a film major and not a business major.  Professor Cohen dutifully informed me that there was no money in film studies, but I’d heard that scare tactic since I was four and so it didn’t work on me this time.

I was off to see every Ingmar Bergman film he could arrange for us, over the next three years (he was writing a definitive biography of the brooding Swedish genius), and we through in everything from Satyajit Ray to Antonioni and classic Hollywood B-pictures.  I loved it.

I found that in graduate film school I’d seen many more classics than my peers, and so I was ready to sit around cafés and think about ideas while my peers were often better equipped to actually get work.  When it came down to it in the end, a film education was the perfect platform on which to build a psychology education.  I wouldn’t really suggest that to anyone else, but at least I found my voice as a shrink by being immersed within, and learning to think analytically about, our collective dreams:  movies.

When I meet kids who have no idea about what they want to be when they grow up I tend to feel relieved and happy.  To me it simply means that no one has scripted them into some preconceived role that the child is unlikely to have any real understanding about.  Show me a kid who wants to be a lion tamer or a preschool teacher and I think at least they liked the circus or preschool—something from their own experience moved them and called to them.

I think it’s nice to be aware of our fears and fantasies so that we can work them through or realize our dreams, but not project them onto our unwitting children.  Good career prep, in my opinion, is teaching kids to think independently and to work as part of a group.  Being exposed to a lot of different occupations, places and ideas gives children, over time, a chance to seek the intersection of what they love and are good at.  This is a good bet for “success” (as defined by a person being happy with what they do and who they are).

I could not have imagined many of the things that are common in our world (i.e. blogging on a personal computer… to me a computer was something that required a stack of hole-punched cards to tell you what 9 times 6 was).  The world our kids will live and work in is an open question—I think we serve our kids by leaving it open.

So, let’s dedicate today to honoring our own dreams, as well as those of all our collective children—neither chickening out from what we want to do, nor projecting our unrequited fears and desires onto our kids.  In the end, it probably matters much less what we do, and how much we make, than the attitude we bring to it and the love we put into it.

Namaste, Bruce

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3 Responses to “What to be, or not to be, when we grow up…”

  1. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    “The world our kids will live and work in is an open question—I think we serve our kids by leaving it open.”

    I love this reminder – not just as it applies to career choice, but to choice in general for our kids: what they like to read, what they like to do. what they like to eat. Too often I fear that I am setting the agenda for my boys. My parents didn’t do that. I always felt like I had tremendous leeway to make safe choices.

  2. BigLittleWolf Says:

    My dreams were stowed in the name of practicality, and debt. Long ago. As they never spilled entirely from the overflowing vessel, they never fully abandoned me. Where does that leave me? Limbo, where I have always lived.

    I have encouraged my own children to dream, and to allow for being “many things” whatever that might entail. To leave doors open. But they have observed the realities of indebtedness and financial stress up close, and I suspect their dreams have been tempered by those realities. I am ambivalent about that, hoping they will find a way to close no doors of interest that open, to be true to their passions, but balance that with the very necessary need to survive financially. About wise choices, which does not necessarily mean safe.

  3. Lindsey Says:

    I love this, Bruce. Thank you. I wanted to be a doctor as I grew up, all along, and I chickened out in college when the lure of English was too strong. But today, I think I would have been better off had I trusted that early and powerful instinct.
    I see my children trying on various ideas, and I love it – I appreciate your call to continue to leave the door open and not to restrict what they view as their option set too early.

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