“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
This is almost an automatic question adults ask when chatting with a kid. Maybe it’s a way to connect through a topic that speaks to us, or because it’s often endearing to hear their answers. But why do we insist so much on kids having one calling in life?
We keep doing this to ourselves as adults too. “What do you do for a living?” and “Where do you work?” are some of the most common conversation starters when meeting someone for the first time.
When you’re a kid, the world is full of possibilities. Nothing seems to be impossible. No question or topic seems trivial enough to not wonder about it. It’s a wonderful exploratory phase. You may want to try a different sport every week. You have a new best friend every month. You’re into board games, and then realise that painting is more your thing. For now.
Go forth and specialise
Often, as soon as you start showing a sustained interest in a specific area, adults will push you to become better at it. To practice. To make it your thing.
It comes from a good place, of course, but it stems from the idea that the more “defined” you are as a person, the better.
Our education system works in a similar way. We are expected to specialise. Going from a generalist curriculum covering everything from arts to maths and history, to graduating with a degree in one specific area.
In friendship too. Research shows that the older you get, the fewer friends you have.
“Part of growing up is accepting all those things you’ll never be, but which perhaps, in another system or universe, you could have been.”Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, Journalist, The Guardian.
But does it have to be the case?
Inverting the pyramid of life
Just in the past couple of days, I had two conversations with friends who were telling me they were lost. Either because they didn’t find joy in their day job anymore, or because a project they had poured their heart and soul into didn’t work out.
For both of them, it seemed hard to find alternative options, because—after years of hard work and smart choices—they were sitting at the tip of the pyramid.
- As a child, they explored.
- As a student, they specialised.
- Now adults, they define themselves.
This is the path I followed for a long time. This is the path most people will follow. Not because that’s what they want, but because that’s what is expected from them.
For the ones with a true calling, research suggests that it may just work fine. What about the others? The same research shows that searching for a calling leaves us confused and uncomfortable.
But why should we look for our one true calling in the first place? Why not invert the pyramid?
- As a child, we are full of potential.
- As a student, we can explore our affinities.
- As an adult, we open up a world of opportunities.
Because you’re optimising for opportunities and not trying to define yourself through a specific expertise, you can stay a student all your life.
This can apply to work, but also friendships. As a child, we have neighbourhood friends, school friends, friends from a sports team, an art club. As an adult, we can significantly expand our circles. And actually choose them in a conscious manner!
If we stop looking for our one true calling and start seeing life instead as a giant playground where we can learn, grow, and connect, it may help us stop asking each other: “So, what do you for a living?”
Anne-Laure Le Cunff
I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.