What do you want to be when you grow up? I’m sitting in my kindergarten classroom as Ms. Thurm asks me this question. It’s not so difficult — Jedi are pretty awesome, I figure, why not just do that? Saving the world from your Dad’s evil empire and getting the girl in the end doesn’t sound like too bad of a future.

Back then, it was a simple question. One that could be answered without worrying about recessions or responsibilities or raging hormones or reading quizzes.

I’d like to think I’ve grown slightly wiser in my (comparatively) old age, so why is that question so much harder now?

“What do you want to be?” has since evolved into, “what could I be?” and then even further into, “what should I be?”

Let’s start with the former: nothing has made “what I could be” more clear than the college admissions process. It’s a time of stress, emotional breakdowns and, maybe most importantly, evaluations. There are few processes that are as intensely evaluative as having complete strangers take a look at your life, using only three recommendations, three scored test sections and three essays.

The entire process on both sides is based on what could; “could you see yourself there … could you live ‘x’ miles from home … could you find someone and something here to love …” On the other side, it looks like “could he excel in our classes … could he represent our school the way we’d like … could he contribute to the academic, intellectual and social diversity in our community …” Between the time when the Common Application is submitted and when those oh-so-looked-forward-to admissions decisions start coming in, it’s made pretty clear what you could be.

“What should I be” is a harder question. That “should” is more subjective — it’s up to us. We can study what we please, we can identify with what we please, and we can say what we please, as we please. That, in the end, should be the blessing of college.

But the “should” is likely influenced in many subtle ways: the economic should, what we need to do outside of class to make sure we can stay in class; the social should, what activities outside of school make sure we can bear staying in school; the academic should, what we need to do inside class to make sure we move forward toward. And that’s a lot to think about.

We’ve looked at the “want” of that impossibly difficult question, maybe we ought to look at the “to be.” In the words of Thomas Merton, it’s “not what we do, but how we do it.” He believed that being is established in action, not by results — by the means, not the end. In that sense, “work” is becoming of an individual — it’s by the way he interacts with the world that he discovers who he is. And, in a world of industry, “work” is the primary obligation of the individual to society. But more important than the work he does is how he does it.

Benjamin Zander establishes two criteria for this “how”: work ought to bring one to love and allow one to play. That’s an interesting theory in a world where we struggle through the academic week toward the freedom of the Friday night.

The missing piece in all of this is a simple one — the concept that “working is playing.” So, “What do you want to be” refers exclusively to Monday morning through Friday afternoon. That’s probably why we have so much trouble answering the question. Believing that what we can do refers to a completely different set of criteria than what we should do, that the “can” refers to the weekend and the “should” to the week, has separated our passions from our ambitions.

We’ve all grown up (at least slightly) since we’ve been asked that questions. It’s no longer what do you want to be when you grow up. Now the question is: are you what you want to be now that you’ve grown up?

I believe we would have a much less negative experience answering the first question if we could respond positively to the second. Forget “working hard” in order to “play hard.” Work, at this point in our lives, should be playing — doing what we could love for another 70 years or so. That’s the blessing of college. We aren’t what we get, but how we get it. Get it?

Eli Cahan is a Business sophomore.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *