Journal: Not what but who!
Adults are always asking kids, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Well, instead of asking what, maybe they should ask who! Who do you want to be?
I’m sure you’ve been asked a million times, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” People love to ask this question, especially to young people like you. When I was little, I really didn’t understand the concept behind the question, and I would answer truthfully: “I want to be a dog.” Well-meaning relatives and friends of my parents would raise their eyebrows, “you want to be a dog?” I would nod seriously and say, “Yes. A puppy.” Until I understood that people wanted you to respond with a profession—doctor, lawyer, teacher—this response seemed perfectly reasonable to me. I loved dogs. I admired their qualities: loyalty, energy, playfulness. So I supposed that’s what I wanted to be: loyal, energetic, playful, just like a dog.
In my junior year of High School, at sixteen years old, my two best friends and I started an environmental activist group called Youth Leaders in Action. As a result of our efforts and rallies, the University of Colorado awarded us a scholarship to attend the 2004 Internationality Sustainability Conference. The University raised its flags and proudly invited activists, leaders and presidents from around the world to speak about the importance of sustainability, to promote the idea that humans and the Earth can reestablish a healthy coexistence.
Most of the attendants to the conference tromped in straight from their University classes. “Here we are with real college kids!” my friend whispered to me. We bristled with excitement listened to all the conversations: the college students talked about weekend parties and having to cram for exams and about living in the dorms. Mostly, though, they talked about how nervous they were to start “real life” in the “real world” and they asked themselves that same question that people have asked you, “what am I going to be when I grow up?”
During one of the conference sessions, a group of about 30 students sat in a circle on the top floor of one of the old, stone buildings on campus. Sunlight poured into the room and bathed the dark carpet in light. Through the windows you could see the snow-laced Colorado Mountains in springtime. Two speakers had been scheduled to talk with us that afternoon: a Ghanaian woman who led her African village out of poverty, and an Indian man who left his family at nine years old to become a monk. This man lives in my memory the same way a wise old librarian occupies a spacious, richly colored library: he’s always there, you just have to summon him and he will bring you the book that you seek. His name is Satish Kumar and he has a dark, sprightly body and glinting eyes, like a sun-bronzed elf. He laughs loud and often, and radiates a sense of calm and magic. He told us the story of his life, of being a monk, of discovering Ghandi, of walking the world with no money to protest nuclear warfare. The students drank in his words. He seemed to be a truly happy, successful person. At the end, he invited our questions. A college student raised his hand uneasily, “Satish, you seem to always have had clarity about what you wanted to be when you grew up. But what if we’re still not sure what we want to be… when we go out into the real world?” The kid looked really nervous, but Satish Kumar laughed and clapped his hands. “If you go into the world wanting to make a million dollars, I cannot guarantee you happiness. What you must know is not what but who you want to be. I want to be somebody who loves peace, who serves humanity. Know who you want to be, and then no matter where you are and what you are doing, then you will be happy.”
Satish’s words echo whenever someone poses that question: what do you want to be? In my mind, I think, not what, but who. For me, at an early age, I knew a little of who I wanted to be. Do you remember the qualities I saw in dogs? I knew I wanted to be loyal, energetic and playful. Thinking about who you want to be instead of what you want to be has several advantages. First, you don’t have to wait! Who wants to wait until they grow up to be who they want to be? Be that person now! Do you want to be a loving son or daughter, a good friend, and an inspiration to people you meet. Well, you can do it today. You can do it at school, on the playground, and on the bus, and when you get home, in the kitchen, in the living room with your family. Once you start practicing being the person you want to be, you’ll get better and better at it. You’ll make mistakes—you’ll get in a fight with your best friend even though you want to be an understanding, patient person—and then you can look at those mistakes and see what went wrong. Then, you can make better mistakes next time! The second advantage to thinking about who you want to be instead of what, is that who you are will help you understand what you want to be, in terms of your profession. Are you a kind, careful person that loves to help people if they are feeling sad? Maybe, then, you would be a great psychologist or therapist. Are you an adventurous person that loves to lead expeditions with your friends? Maybe, then, you would make a skilled adventure tour guide.
The point is: who you are informs what you will become. The most important thing is not to decide: I want to be an actress or I want to be a famous football player. While these professions look glamorous when we see them on TV, we have no way of knowing who those people are. Are they considerate of others’ feelings? Are they good at sharing? When they made someone cry, did they make sure to say they were sorry, and to really mean it?
I would encourage you to challenge people’s expectations. Let me give you an example. The next adult you meet asks you what you want to be when you grow up. What do you think they expect to hear? They expect to hear a profession. They expect to hear, “when I grow up, I want to be a scientist.” That’s wonderful, but why not surprise them, and instead of a profession, tell them adjectives. Pick three of your favorite adjectives. “When I grow up, I want to be… happy! And confident! And funny!” And don’t stop there. You could add, “in fact, I don’t want to wait until I grow up. I want to be those things right now!”
Has anyone every told you, “you can be anything you want to be?” Well, it’s true! But the best part is that you don’t have to wait until you grow up, and you don’t have to choose a profession. All you have to know is who you want to be. And try to be that person every day. So, who do you want to be?