Stop Asking Kids What They Want To Be When They Grow Up

When I was a kid, I had dreams about the kind of life I wanted to live. In fact, when I had friends over, we would spend a lot of time just talking about how we were going to live when we grew up – the number of children we wanted to have, the houses…


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When I was a kid, I had dreams about the kind of life I wanted to live. In fact, when I had friends over, we would spend a lot of time just talking about how we were going to live when we grew up – the number of children we wanted to have, the houses we wanted to live in, the cars we would drive and so on.  Our parents fondly called this activity “day dreaming”.
Looking back now, I sadly realize that we’re not living the lives we dreamed of.  Something went wrong somewhere; possibly after a significant adult in our lives asked us that daunting question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

We had no answer to this question, of course.  After all, how do you know what you want when you don’t know what is available to you?  And so we were presented with the available options, namely doctor, lawyer, engineer and other lucrative professions of the time.  We then made our choices based on those options, and set our life plans in motion.
Answering that question with one of the multiple options we were provided would go on to determine the turns of our lives in four phases:

The Plan

This is “what” you want to be in the future.  The problem with this is that it puts you in a box immediately.  As a child, you don’t necessarily know “what” you want to be, but you know “how” you want to live. When you go ahead and choose a plan anyway, you are limited to a box of a few options; a few professions; a few labels. And then you start on a mostly misguided journey of executing your plan.

The Sacrifice

Now, after choosing the plan, you have no liberty of choice anymore. The rest is chosen for you.  The plan picks the sacrifice you must pay.

Assume you want to be a doctor. That plan demands a sacrifice of a thousand years in school and a thousand more in housemanships, internships, residencies and all those activities that my doctor friends never seem to complete.  You want to simply be a white-collar professional? It would require some schooling obviously, and then perhaps place you on the 40-40 plan – working forty hours a week for forty years of your life until you retire.

We usually have no idea about the sacrifices involved until we move along in the plan. And then we are surprised by the intensity of studying required or the level of office politics to be played.  This is because the plan, not us, chooses our sacrifice.

The Association

The plan and the sacrifice pick our associations for us.  As we pursue our plans, we don’t get to pick our classmates or our colleagues at work.  Yet, we have no choice but to spend the most of our waking hours with them.  They become our primary association and we are inherently influenced by them in making our life decisions.

This is how those stereotypes about certain professionals develop; bankers go into a lot of debt buying fancy toys, oil-rig workers swear a lot, and consultants just love to trek long distances with their huge bag-packs. They do all these things because the people they spend the most time with do them as well.  It is just the law of association and it extends to all areas of our lives.

The Lifestyle

This is where your childhood dreams are finally crushed! You don’t get to design this anymore. The plan, sacrifice and association all come together to form your lifestyle.

The plan is your profession and hence your source of income.  It affords you certain things in life, limited to your income of course.  The sacrifice then determines how much time (and even money) you have left to enjoy those things.  Your association finally influences you by constantly giving you often unsolicited advice on how you should take this loan, send your kids to that school, write the CFA exams and jump to the next employer who would pay slightly higher because “that’s what everybody is doing”. You may end up living an unintentional life, designed by circumstances and the opinions of others.


This is the average life path today – all of which is set in motion by framing questions in such a way that we unknowingly set our children on narrow plans and paths, which then lead to unintentional lifestyles.

What if we started asking a different question? Instead of asking what you want to be, how about asking how you want to live? I know for sure that I would have had a very long and passionate answer to that question as a kid. I mean, it was all I dreamed about!

Asking this question reverses the order, and gives you more control over your life path.  Instead of asking one to choose a Plan, it is a question of Lifestyle. Determine how you want to live and seek out people who already live that way, get around them and let them become your Association. These people could be accessible family members or distant role models, in which case you could study their biographies, attend seminars and just get around such elevated association. They will tell you what Sacrifices they made to attain their lifestyle and then, with their help, you can come up with the most suitable Plan to create that lifestyle.

I gathered with friends once again, not as kids this time around, but as young undergraduate adults. We got talking, and one of us talked about the lifestyle he wanted.  He mentioned wanting to be “larger than life” and that he enjoyed good food and loved seeing others enjoy same.  He detailed how he actively got around an association of people living that lifestyle, even interning at the kitchen of a hotel run by his uncle.  He was further encouraged to pay the sacrifice of attending culinary school in France.  After that was done, he returned home to Nigeria and set out on a game plan to becoming a renowned chef.

He was on the same path as us; studying what he didn’t love, to eventually live the life he didn’t desire. But he summoned the courage to change that course.  We admire him today because he’s living his dream.  Being a chef is certainly not a profession in a ‘box’ but a niche in the Nigerian market.

I know this will ruffle your feathers. I know it is different from the norm.  We’ve been taught to make a living but not to make a life.  To change the course of our lives however, and help our kids take control of theirs, we definitely have to change our approach to life. And it starts by asking this simple question:  How do you want to live?


  1. Louisa
    I have never really given this much thought but this makes a lot of sense and puts so many things into perspective for me. Wow. Very good read.
  2. Akanna Okeke Post author
    Thanks for your comment, Louisa. Yes, we never really give this a thought because society formats us into accepting what everyone else around us is doing. We learn to think differently mostly by changing our association. I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂
  3. mollie12
    In a similar vein, I came across this post on Facebook with the message, “Don’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up but what problems they want to solve. This changes the conversation from ‘Who do I want to work for?’, to ‘What do I need to learn to be able to do that'” Re-framing that question is key to changing our approach to living and life.
  4. Joko
    This write up bought back memories. I remember listening to my father – not asking us (4 kids) what we want to be – but telling us what we will be. I remember them clearly: Kid 1 – Doctor; Kid 2 – Lawyer; Kid 3 – Accountant; Kid 4 – Engineer. Funny, right?

    Truth is none his kids followed that sequence (although there is an accountant and an engineer in the mix). As I grew older, I discovered, for him, it was a prayer for his kids to be successful as these were the professions considered a “success” in their time. He never forced anyone along those professions though.

    The mind of the new generation needs to be exposed to every possible opportunity – thus, not putting them in a box from the question “what do you want to be when you grow up”.

    Give them the opportunity to try anything and everything; and eventually settle down to do what they eventually find fulfilling -thus answering the question of how they want to live.

    Nice write up.

  5. Akanna Okeke Post author
    Thank you Joko.
    That’s very interesting that your dad even told you guys what he wanted you to be. I know many parents do it too. They even stop you from chasing your (silly) dreams of maybe writing, drawing or playing a sport so well–and ask you to go and do your homework lol!

    I hope our generation teaches our kids to follow this path you have suggested. And I know you will be that example 🙂

    Merry Christmas!


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