May 13, 2021

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" Moving from "what" to "why"

When we’re kids, adults often ask us, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” The responses range from firefighter to astronaut to princess to pony; mine was a “singer/actress/golden retriever breeder.” What can I say? I was ambitious for the get-go.

As we graduate and move up to middle and high school, the question remains, but becomes marred by stereotypes and judgments. We pick up on what we think we should strive to be based on what adults and peers in our circles are modeling. Thus, in middle school, I wanted to be a “businesswoman.” I didn’t exactly know what that meant, but I knew my parents did it and from what I gathered they seemed to be “successful” in the traditional, financial sense of the word.

As I’ve moved beyond college to post-grad, I’ve become troubled by this question that shapes many of our social circles. “what do you want to be when you grow up?” morphs into “what do you do?” as adults. This interaction allows us to categorize our peers, filtering them into mental buckets based on their job title. But here is the problem, just as economists recognize that GDP doesn’t fully depict the prosperity of a country, job titles do not accurately portray the “success” of an individual. This is because financial wealth is only a piece of the equation. With shocking statistics like “66% of Americans are not engaged or actively disengaged in work”(1) coming out of analytics giant Gallup, year over year, I must deduce that the working world of America has its incentives misaligned.

After battling the question “what do I want to do when I grow up” seemingly endlessly; I have come to reframe the question to: “what do I enjoy doing?” Through conversations with experts in their fields and personal study I have come to believe that leading with individual passions and interests coupled with cultivating relevant skills more often than not leads to a “happier” and more fulfilled existence. So how do we get there?

Technology and a rapidly evolving job market demand a more creative, independent-minded workforce.

As the economy rapidly shifts, and technology introduces and eradicates new jobs daily, we cannot stand by and continue to train our children for typical command-and-control, twentieth-century jobs (think doctor, lawyer, engineer - though these jobs are important and essential - they aren’t for everyone). To stay competitive in the global economy we must encourage people to explore their diverse interests and build skill-sets that allow them to further explore and advance these passions. As Marketing thought-leader, Seth Godin noted depicted in his podcast, Akimbo, “Recent college graduates, hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, who have spent an entire career getting an A, pleasing a professor, doing what was on the test, showing up where they’re told. [Are] expunge[d] into the world and we say, ‘get a job’ they say, ‘where’s the placement office.’ We say ‘well, we don’t have a placement office anymore.’ They say ‘where’s the line of people who want to hire compliant workers? Well dressed. Well spoken. Compliant workers who want to get an A. Where are those people?’ We say, ‘well, doesn’t work that way anymore not for the good jobs. The good jobs are the jobs where you’ve got to pick yourself.’” (2)

Passion and individual fulfillment are driven by the “why” not the “what.”

When we connect to “why” we are engaging in something rather than “what” we are engaging in, we are opening ourselves up to a myriad of opportunities’ that we can pursue rather than pigeon-holing ourselves into a defined “job path.”  For most careers today, there is no defined job path; and, making students believe that there is one pathway to get to where they’re going is putting them at a major disadvantage. When we are driven by why we are pursuing a certain interest we can say goodbye to the traditional job ladder and hello to a much more engaging and iterative job puzzle. As author and motivational speaker, Simon Sinek notes, “When you know the decision is right, not only does it feel right, but you can also rationalize it and easily put it into words. The decision is fully balanced. The rational WHAT offers proof for the feeling of WHY. If you can verbalize the feeling that drove the gut decision, if you can clearly state your WHY, you’ll provide a clear context for those around you to understand why that decision was made. If the decision is consistent with the facts and figures, then those facts and figures serve to reinforce the decision - this is balance.” (3)

Play is a proven lever for motivation in the workplace.

Play, defined as “being motivated by the work itself” or, as I like to look at it, the intersection of one’s interests, passions and skills, has been proven to be the most powerful lever for workplace motivation. Play ranks far above monetary gain, peer approval or even role advancement. Lindsey McGregor of culture & strategy consultancy, Vega Factor explains, “A teacher at play enjoys the core activities of teaching — creating lesson plans, grading tests, or problem solving how to break through to each student. Play is our learning instinct, and it’s tied to curiosity, experimentation, and exploring challenging problems.” (4) Play leads to happier, more efficient workers, and; thus, workplaces.

If you asked me today, “what do you want to be when you grow up,” I’d tell you: I don’t know, but I strive to be both happy and of service to others. If you asked me what I enjoy doing, I’d tell you that I feel satisfaction in learning something new every day, teaching what I’ve learned to others and creating experiences that encourage people to connect with themselves and with those around them. Armed with this sense of self I am confident navigating business and personal decisions.

So I challenge you, let’s stop asking kids “what do you want to be when you grow up” and start asking them “what do you like to do” or “what do you enjoy doing?” Because in the end, what we do matters, but how and why we do it makes or breaks our experience. 

1. Harter, Jim. “Dismal Employee Engagement Is a Sign of Global Mismanagement.”, Gallup, 13 Dec. 2017,

2. Godin, Seth narrator. “You’re It.” Akimbo, season 3, episode 2, October 9, 2018,

3. Sinek, Simon. Start With Why - How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Penguin Group, 2009.

4. McGregor, Lindsay and Neel, and Neel Doshi. “How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation.” Harvard Business Review, 25 Nov. 2015,

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