Why “What Do You Want to Be?” Is the Wrong Question

by Alli Polin on November 28, 2017

Today was a themed dress day at my son’s school as a part of a fundraiser. The signs around the school said “Free Dress Day! What do you want to be when you’re older?” The suggestions included fashion designer and chef. 

Late last week, when I first saw the signs at school, I asked my son, “What are you going to wear for what you want to be when you grow up on the free dress day?”

I know he wants to be a music producer and once in a while, I hear architect too. I was curious what he’d pick. 

He didn’t hesitate and said, “I’m going to go dressed as myself. I always want to be me no matter what I do.”

Let’s hold here for a sec. 

He wants to be himself. Yes, his mom is a coach, but he also gets it. Your job is one dimension of who you are, not the be-all-end-all. Until you have a clear sense of self, it’s easy to get lost in the climb. 

Okay. Unfreeze. The next scene isn’t quite as pretty but probably seems familiar to you. 

Last night at dinner he started to doubt his choice. 

“They mean job…”

“What if I get in trouble?”

“Should I just wear my baseball uniform and say I want to be a baseball player?”

Ahhh. Hello, Self-Doubt. I knew you’d make an appearance. 

Just Be You

The advice to just be you sounds so simple, but in practice can be so hard. It’s scary and vulnerable to let the “who you are” beneath “what you do” shine through. 

We become masterful at hiding our full-selves at work. We’ve become so obsessed with looking and playing the part that we start to let it define us. 

I’m the boss, so this is what I need to do/look/be like.

I’m a creative.

I’m a professional. 

You name it, and there are expectations around it. 

It’s true that sometimes playing a part can help us embrace it and internalize it but it shouldn’t take over. You are more than any of the jobs that you’ve ever had or any of the titles on your business card. You’re more than the brand of your shirt and more than the size of your corner office. You’re you. 

Here’s the scoop: People are inspired by you, not your outfit. They’re touched by your human-ness more than the size of your office. If you want a fulfilling, happy life, you need to keep in touch with who you are and what makes you want to get out of bed in the morning beyond your paycheck.

Ultimately my son took a deep breath, put on a favorite t-shirt and shorts and went to school. 

“I’m me. I can’t worry that someone else won’t like my choice.”

Right on, my boy. Right on. 

If “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is the wrong question, what’s the right one?

Instead of worrying about what you want to be when you grow up, start with who you want to be – because that’s what makes all the difference.

So… who do you want to be when you grow up?

Are you showing up as your full-self or still only bringing slices with you everywhere you go? 

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian Smith November 28, 2017 at 5:50 am

What about asking – “What do you want to do when you grow up?” The choices are almost endless. Thought provoking as always Alli


Alli Polin November 28, 2017 at 6:04 am

Being and doing can often go hand in hand. One layers on the next and through our being and doing we make a meaningful impact. Thanks so much, Brian!



Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™ November 28, 2017 at 8:25 am

Your son’s response blows me away … “dressed as myself.” Those words give far greater clarity to this perennial discussion beyond the “just be yourself” advice.

Dressed as myself suggests a conscious choice to present your authentic self dressed and ready. I’ve been concerned for awhile that people think “just be yourself” means appearing and behaving with no filter. But “dressed as myself” communicates putting forth all your best qualities as they evolve.

VERY interesting post.

All the best,


Alli Polin November 28, 2017 at 8:31 am


I absolutely love how you put it – I think that’s how he meant it too. I’m with you that being yourself doesn’t equate to having permission to be a jerk or act with no filter. When dressed as myself means the best parts of who we are and who we want to be, everything comes together.

Love your insight on this! Thanks!



Gary Gruber November 28, 2017 at 9:42 am

A thousand yesses to this question and topic, on of my all-time, long time favorites. And you son has it exactly right, 100%! Not too surprising, given his mother. It is all about who we want to be which will then inform what we do and not the other way around. We are, in fact, human beings, not human doings, although there is ample evidence to the contrary.
“To thine own self be true,” said Polonius, “and it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not be false to any man.” People often ask another version of your question which is, “Where did you grow up.” I know what they mean but I usually respond with “I didn’t grow up, I just got older.” Hopefully a bit wiser too.


Gary Gruber November 28, 2017 at 9:43 am

PS Sorry about the typo spelling errors, result of not editing carefully.


Alli Polin November 28, 2017 at 9:28 pm

No worries! Appreciate your insights!


Alli Polin November 28, 2017 at 9:28 pm

We are indeed human beings. Forget that once in a while there’s always so much to do 🙂

All day at school people asked my son if he was going to grow up and be a LEGO builder (he had on a LEGO shirt). Everyone wanted to understand which box he was putting himself into for the day. He just told them, “No. I’m just me and that’s what I’ll be when I’m older too.” I think he confused a lot of people!

Thanks, Gary.



Terri Klass November 28, 2017 at 9:44 am

Wow! I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I am so impressed with your son’s response but not surprised that he questioned his decision. Thinking about how our peers will react can be daunting.

I totally agree with you that people are multi-faceted and the most important part of ourselves is our core. We need to know who we are, what we believe, what we value. Those things will go into whatever career choice we make ultimately.

Love this story and your son’s willingness to dump the labels and just be true to himself!

Thanks Alli and will share!


Alli Polin November 28, 2017 at 9:30 pm

You’re right, Terri. It’s one thing to say you want to “I want to be me” but you also need to understand what that means – values are an important part of that process.

Thanks so much!



Matt November 28, 2017 at 12:36 pm

Your son is my hero 🙂

I am grateful for his example.

Thanks for a great post!


Alli Polin November 28, 2017 at 9:30 pm

Matt! Hello, old friend! I’m grateful for his example too. Wish I had been willing to say the same at his age.



LaRae Quy November 28, 2017 at 3:15 pm

As usual, your post was inspirational! I always appreciate your wisdom. I think we forget what it’s like to be a child…or maybe we do and we’re determined that our children will have it better than we did. As you say, the messages we send our kids stick with them. For example, the message my parents sent me was that successful people always go to college. That was a good message but it also ruled out other options. I thought I was an athlete until someone told me I’d be better off going for the consolation prize…I like that your son feels he has permission to explore options and that the core of who he is will ultimately be multi-faceted.


Alli Polin November 28, 2017 at 9:35 pm


I’m undoing my biases little by little. I too have sent the message that college is the path and more specifically college in the USA. The longer I live overseas I remember that there’s a reason we moved here. Their path already looks little like mine, how am I to dictate what comes next? (Not that I don’t try 😉 If he learns to love himself and trust himself and discover his strengths and weaknesses he’ll get where he needs to go. No need to for the consolation prize.




Bren Lee November 28, 2017 at 5:55 pm

Oh my gosh, Alli! Your son is amazing! How many people would actually answer the way he did? “I’m going as ME!” I love it!

Thank you for sharing this. It’s an inspiration to me to hear the younger generation just wanting to “be”. Love it!



Alli Polin November 28, 2017 at 9:36 pm

Thanks, B!

He’s not always the most confident kid but I see moments like this and I know he’s gonna be more than ok.

It’s an inspiration to me too 🙂




John Bennett November 28, 2017 at 6:26 pm

Yes, your son does get it … Hopefully, you’re giving yourself a few “attaperson” tokens or documents!!! Additionally, I hope you’ve reflected on your interactions with your son, picking up some new ideas.

At 75 (the new middle age??? Yea, right …), I have recently learned one thing that I wish I had begun Considering when I was a first-year high school student +/- with self-assessment / Reflection / updates from then forward: Developing visions (personal and career) aligned with the thinking and suggestions in “Full Steam Ahead” by Blanchard and Stoner. These visions must be compatible with me “Being Me.”

Love the post as usual!!!


Alli Polin November 28, 2017 at 9:43 pm

First, I’ll go with 75 being the new middle age. I like it!

The power of having a vision is critical – even when we adjust it over time. My son does have strong career aspirations and we’re supporting him (although I don’t get it). He has a vision for where he wants to take his interest which helps him choose if he’ll waste time on the ipad or in front of the TV or choose to invest in his self-defined future. Even then, the choices are hard for a 6th grader. I’m going to take your suggestion here and think about how I can help him take charge and blend the vision with “being me” and how that may change his trajectory in 7th grade and beyond.

Thanks, John!



David Tumbarello November 29, 2017 at 12:56 pm

It’s all about the Frame!

I love that your son was mindful about his decision to “be himself” later at the dinner table, and the next day. Mindfulness is so much more important than going through life – on autopilot.

I suppose the dress-up day activity teaches kids to aspire or imagine how they will be successful at __ [fill in occupation]. And kids will have interests in architecture, art, engineering, and so on. But I wonder if we are doing our kids a disservice by having them play with this idea too early in life, when they know so little about the world.

When my kids were yeah-high, a book I read to them nearly every night was called “Bears at Work: A Book of Bearable Jobs”. The book listed 26 unique career choices. I liked the book because it spoke about a plethora of career options. My kids liked the book because the six or eight line rhymes made the reading fun. While I liked exposing my kids to the options at that young age, I’m concerned that even 26 is a limiting number for a child … or an adult!

Your son’s teacher is sending a well-intended message that we all should aspire. Yet this has to be tempered by several factors: the world will change in the next 15 years in ways we cannot imagine, our experience and exposure to jobs will change in the next 15 years, and our tastes will change. Hopefully for your son, in the next 15 years, his exposure will match the changing world and that will match his taste. And I can’t even begin to imagine how different this result will be from what we can imagine today!


Chery Gegelman November 30, 2017 at 4:51 pm

This is so awesome Alli! What a proud Mom moment! Your son’s response and final choice are inspiring. (Even if it confused some people!)

Thank you so much for sharing and reminding me why I love that line from the Lion King, “Remember who you are…”


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