The Wrong Question and a Few Better Ones

My answer to The Question at 7 years old

My answer to The Question at 7 years old

The Question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”


  • What was your response when you were first asked The Question?  

  • At what age were were you asked The Question for the first time?

  • How many times has your answer changed over the course of your life?

  • How has The Question impacted your identity and sense of self?

I imagine adults ask The Question to help young people envision their futures, lay claim to big dreams, and express their passions. Even though The Question is well intended, it’s the wrong question.

First off, children won’t “be” their jobs - they will perform work and will likely find some measure of identity in their work, but being is very different from doing. We all have a responsibility to help children learn to be kind, be curious, and be compassionate problem-solvers, community members, family members, and people.

Second, children should see growing up as a process, like learning, that is ongoing and part of life’s journey - there is no destination called grown-up, but there are ways to act as a responsible adult in the world.

Third, and most relevant for my work at the intersection of learning and the future of work, we should be asking young people to imagine many roles and opportunities in the future that don’t exist today. After all, we know the era of lifetime careers is over (the average stint is 4.2 years in 2018) and The Institute for the Future estimates 85% of the jobs that today’s learners will be doing in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.

Here are a few suggestions for relevant, generative replacement questions to help young people start imagining their whole selves in a future of exponential change.

  • What do you want to do with your time?

    • Teach children the concept (but not necessarily the nomenclature) of opportunity cost at an early age. Each choice involves a trade-off and means forgoing the next best thing you could be doing with your time. Are you spending your time well? How do you know? How might you spend your time better in the future? Are your time and values aligned? Are you spending your time doing things that contribute to your personal growth and/or the greater good?

  • What impact do you want to make on the world?

    • I love the thinking behind the 80,000 Hours site, which posits that you have, “about 80,000 hours working in your career: 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for 40 years,” to make the most positive impact possible on the world. I developed an Ikigai Skills Inventory that I use with students to help them think about the intersection of what they love to do, what the world needs and what they can get paid for.

  • What matters most & what kind of life do you want to live?

    • Teach young people to discover (and rediscover) a sense of purpose throughout their lives. Help young people understand their own value systems and how these might align with the work they hope to do. Have young people draw their futures -- a day in your life/a year in your life/a decade in review in your life and follow up with questions like: What did you do? Who is in your pictures? How did you feel? Where did you go? When were you happiest? How do these pictures showcase your hopes and dreams for the future? Help young people understand that they are more than what they do for income.

  • How can you create the future?

    • What problems do you want to solve? What do you want to invent? Imagine if we could do _______ in a new/better way, what would that look like?  How might emerging technologies change what it means to be a _____________? What will we need in the future that doesn’t exist today?


Meredith Goddard