What (All) Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?


I think we in the post- industrial world live with a big lie. And its one we’re not necessarily aware of. But its surely one that we pass on to our children. And its not doing us any good nor our children. The lie I’m talking about is a subtle one. Its the idea that in our life we need to wait for people to pick us for a specific field to excel.

The first think we need to understand is that Henry Ford – the inventor of the modern industry – is dead. In the factories of the Ford Motor Company people were picked for a special work field by the hiring office to do what the company told them to. Now we’re living in a time where our industry is actually more driven by high tech, making the old assembly lines obsolete. I’m not so sure the majority of people are understanding that yet. And if the grown ups don’t get it, the children will not be educated with this insight either.

Now why is this important for us as parents? It is because this notion of the industrial mind set is hard wired into our education and school systems. Modern schools are a mere hundred years old and were set up during the industrial revolution to train human beings to work in a factory for eight to ten hours a day and do as they are told. Sitting in rows in a class room for eight hours and getting good grades for repeating what the teacher has told you before is a great way to train children for that. It certainly doesn’t teach creative thinking.

But this text should not be about schools and universities, not about the challenges of the modern work life. Its about something much more personal. The notion that like never in the history of the human race, people have more freedom than ever, and of course with more freedom also comes more responsibility for one’s own actions. Keep in mind that for thousands of years people were either slave owners or bond-slave. Nowadays – even in authoritarian systems – we are very much liberated to follow our own path. And we’re wasting this newly acquired personal freedom.

We seem to rather follow a few principles that seem to make our lifes more comfortable. The phrase ‘comfort zone’ is capturing this well. A in some way hilarious example is a study by Jake Halpern for his bestseller‘Fame Junkies’. 650 teenagers in Rochester (New York) were asked if they would like to become a United States Senator, a Navy Seal, or the assistant to a famous singer or movie star. It turned out that 43.4% of the kids wanted to make coffee for a celebrity.

What is also interesting about the survey is that it gave children the option to choose one profession. The modern world knows specialized fields. Everyone that studied economics learns in the first semester that this work share has made us all rich. Everyone’s specializing in a certain field and we then trade commodities. And that philosophy translates into the question we ask our children: what do you want to be when you grow up?

Normal answers are a ballerina, an astronaut or doctor. I doubt that any parent will go back ten years after they asked that question to a six year old and demand this special profession. But what sticks with children is that in life you can do one thing, only.

This is not just a very naive notion of the opportunities of the modern world. Its also a very dangerous one. A good example is actually the modern Chinese culture. Here’s the roadmap to happiness according to what a lot of people I met between Beijing and Hong Kong seem to believe: You need to graduate from a famous University, get a good job and eventually climb to the top of the management, buy a flat, marry and bear a son.

If that is the way to happiness I can’t really say I’ve seen so many happy people during my time in China. They rather often seemed distressed trying to fulfill those requirements.

Let me put some ideas on the table of how I believe we need to change our own world view. And help our children to have a more self determined and by this happier life.

  1. School is important and I want my child to graduate from a good university. But next time when you see one of those school ads that show pics of their graduates that were accepted by a famous college, keep in mind that getting picked is not important. That Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates all dropped out of university. That they didn’t wait for permission to realize their ideas. And by this became some of the most successfull people on this planet. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t wait for permission to start Facebook. He took initiative.
  2. In the renaissance it was not unusual for people to have various interests as this speaks to human curiosity. Heres a list of the interests of Leonardo da Vinci: invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. As blogger and entrepeneur Mitch Joel says, people in the future will not have several jobs in their life but several careers. And that is not a bad thing. To excel in various fields was normal before the factory mindset told us otherwise.
  3. I highly recommend a TED talk by monk David Steindl-Rast about gratefulness. He discusses what it takes to be a happy person. He argues that its all about gratefulness. If you can not be grateful for what life gives you, it will be difficult to find any kind of joy in your life. That contradicts my little list of things that you will need for happiness according to popular Chinese notion as the list doesn’t say ‘be grateful for those items’ but rather ‘only if you achieved all of this, you are entitled to happiness’.
  4. Take risks and live with mistakes. The kids learn in school not to make mistakes. Every mistake you make is punished with bad grades. Its not exactly reality they learn there. Making mistakes is normal, and one of my favorite quotes by marketing guru Seth Godin is this: if you say failure is no option, you say neither is success. And isn’t he right? Thomas Edison famously tried (and first failed) a thousand times before inventing the light bulb. If he had given up too early you might be reading this text now sitting next to a lighted candle.
  5. Where ever we succeed in life its rarely the product of the achievement of one single person. The factory idea was about individual persons and so learning team work is getting so important in modern schools that try to break out of this. Yet cooperating with others is a skill. It has to be taught and lived. And its not just something that touches our work life but every aspect of our private life as well. If we master this, we will also be able to live a more fulfilled life alongside our friends and family.

This summary is not about asking you to do more. Its about asking you to do less, or to be specific do less of the things you took for granted. Things that your own parents and teachers taught you as implicit. My wish is that parents start to teach their children to use their freedom and demand that they pick themselves and not wait for permission. And that we stop listening to all those things society tells us to do in order to achieve happiness while its clearly not even in the best of interest of society to do so. Get a bit more relaxed, set your goals according to your interests and talents, and the rest will come naturally. It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science. Just a bit of faith in our own abilities as human beings.


Written by Nils,who founded baby international with his wife when his son was born. He likes to understand the origin of traditions rooted in our festivals and celebrations ,which translates into interesting reads .When he’s not writing for the magazine, Nils is playing with Vincent or cheers for Oranje.We welcome him to be a part of ShanghaiMama community.