My daughter is 6 years old and one of the wisest people I have ever known. A few days ago I asked her the question that I used to dread being asked when I was a child; the question that is so open-ended that it seems exciting to ask, but is rather unfair to the recipient:
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I almost kicked myself for saying it. As soon as the words left my lips I thought, Twinley, what did you ask that for? She’s only 6!
To excuse myself slightly, we had been talking about what a "career" was and why people go to work. My wife and son (who is 9) were up in London at an amazing place called Kidzania, which is effectively a miniature city for children where they earn “money” through getting jobs (being anything from airline cabin crew to a hotel porter, an air conditioning engineer, doctor, vet…even an estate agent). So, while our son was getting some brief exposure to the world of work, I was discussing with our daughter what she made of the whole thing. It still doesn’t excuse me for asking such a cliché question though…but at least you know the context behind it now. Judge me as you wish.
Anyway…so, I asked the question. It was out.
And my daughter considered it for a brief moment, before responding with the best answer ever. It was so simple, and yet so deep.
“I don’t know yet. I’ll decide when I get there”.
It was amazing. She answered as calmly and nonchalantly as if I had asked what she would like to eat for tea. “I’ll decide when I get there”!! What a sensible, brilliant answer.
Most people I know have struggled throughout their teens and adult life to figure out what path they want to follow, constantly worrying whether it will be the right career for them; whether they studied the right subjects; whether they are fulfilling their potential; even whether their parents would be proud of them. To hear an uninterrupted, unfiltered, innocent 6 year old say “I’ll decide when I get there” was a revelation.
It got me thinking. Over the years I, and the team around me, have helped large numbers of people advance their careers in the Pharmaceutical industry. A lot of these people have PhDs or Medical qualifications, or have furthered themselves over many years of hard graft in clean room engineering or lab testing. When these people were 6 years old, what would theyhave said to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up”? At what point did they decide to head out on such a specific path? Did they do well in science at school? Was it the influence of a great teacher? Was it parental pressure or expectation? Following a family tradition of working in healthcare? The desire to help people with rare diseases? Perhaps something entirely different.
The answers, of course, will vary for every individual. Our careers (and indeed our lives) are made of a series of phases, and sometimes we have no idea what the next one will be. Some of us are lucky enough to find something that we truly enjoy, and that not only pays the bills but also fulfils a particular need (whether a conscious or unconscious one). Personally, I love hearing people’s stories. At what point did they discover their passion? And is it ok if they haven’t?
And actually, for most of us, do we even need to decide what we want to be when we grow up? What's that Baz Luhrmann lyric again...?