The dreaded question: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Magdalene Abraha wonders whether it's it better to follow your dreams, or to settle for a boring career that puts food on the table

Magdalene Abraha
Wednesday 15 January 2014 13:04

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" It's a question we have all been asked at one point. And for students, it's all the more prevalent, because we're at a point where we're nearly done with growing.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the question; if anything the habit of planning ahead is an essential skill. Where the issue lies for us is the pressure we're under for a proper response. Knowingly or not, students are constantly pressured to choose career paths in fields that they do not have much interest in.

"University is an impediment, it is instills the wrong way of thinking" - Robert Greene

Anna Bradley, a second year student at Cambridge, has noticed the pressure to choose between the academia and what we're all told is "the dream".

"You can’t help but feel as an undergraduate these days that university is no longer a sacred place of unbounded free learning, but instead is just another part of the employability machine," she says. "From the continual career fairs and talks, undergraduates are forced to become a part of the marketplace before they have even stepped into it.”

It can seem like we are encouraged to choose a career path that is either respected or that generates a lot of money, that students have to follow the structured system laid out for them by their university. Of course, if becoming a lawyer or an accountant is your dream then that's great - but it's hardly always the case.

“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful” - Albert Schweitzer

As youngsters, our responses to the question of what we want to do when we were grown up were perhaps more imaginative. Children's thoughts are not as structured, so they can express what they truly want, irrespective of parental or societal expectations. The older we get, the more we lose this free way of thinking, and this "inner voice" that Steve Jobs often spoke of weakens. The result for students is that they end up following the typical trail of graduating from university and entering fields that seem right, or that'll earn some cash, disregarding what they truly aspire to do.

Dr Lisa Wade at Occidental College in the USA argues that this is the correct route to take; deeming the chase-your-dream ideal a poetic, clichéd concept that ultimately sets students up for failure. Dr Wade advises that students should instead "find a job that [they] like pretty well. That's good enough", insisting that it is rare to find anything more. However, if any modern day visionary took this advice... well would they be much of a visionary?

On the other hand, the writer Robert Greene argues that the common “you need to be doctor or a lawyer” ethos must be ignored and that instead students should seek to merge their genuine interests with a career path.

We all know that many parents' worst nightmare is seeing their child become an aimless dream-chaser who clearly won't achieve anything. These university-structured career paths are heaven-sent as far they are concerned. The subtle stigma attached to dream chasing seems all the more ironic, because as a society, we actually do admire those who have a dream and make it a reality - the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and all the rest, all of whom repeatedly give the same advice to reach ultimate success.

"Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do - don’t settle" - Steve Jobs

University is certainly a worthy experience , whether as a bridge to independence or a path to your dream job, there is something to gain from the experience. What university does wrong, though, is apply a collective system to a group of unique individuals. Entering a career that you don't enjoy but which is respected and pays well may seem the smarter and safer option, but surely whatever career you seek to choose will take up a large part of your life and so surely, it is in your interest to ensure that it is what you truly want to do.

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