It is a question we’ve all been asked at least once at some point in our childhood. And the answer, at least for me, would change depending on the time and place or the frame of mind I was in. I can remember most of the answers I gave and the reasons behind them for the most part. And now (theoretically at least) I am a grown-up. So did I become the thing I wanted to be? The answer is no.
I did not become what I wanted to be when I grew up. In the most literal sense, I am about as far from what I wanted to be as it is possible to be. However, the answer could be yes if you are loosey-goosey on what your interpretation of “is” is. If you are willing to be abstract then the answer would be a resounding maybe.
To be honest I wouldn’t have been thinking about this question at all if had not been for a recent conversation with my daughter; a conversation where the question was asked again but in hindsight.
My daughter, a freshman in high school, sat down one day and started to plan out all of her classes through to her senior year. She wanted to make sure she had the right classes and got the correct credits for college and to be prepared for whatever future career she chose. What that career will be exactly is a bit of a mystery but she is vigorously attempting to figure it out.
I was never that motivated in high school. I’m pretty sure I’m not that motivated now. Her motivation is no doubt due to her mother’s influence, thankfully. But the whole process of planning did prompt the question, “Dad, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
In response I smiled, I furrowed my brow, I hummed, and hawed; a straight answer did not readily present itself. After all, I didn’t plan all my classes through high school. In college, I changed my major twice. When all was said and done I ended up working in a field I didn’t go to school for anyway. I thought of telling her that she shouldn’t be tied to what you think you want to be now because things change. Life happens and gets in the way of those best-laid plans.
But the more I thought about it the more I realized that wasn’t exactly true. Yes, life happens and yes, things change. But dreams and desires stay with you. And they do come true. Maybe just not in the way you expected.
The first thing I remember that I wanted to be was a hero. A knight actually. Preferably in the service of a beautiful princess in a magical kingdom. I didn’t necessarily need shining armor but I wouldn’t have turned it down. No, all I needed was a shield and sword and a quest. A trash can lid doubled for the shield, perfectly round with a handle and everything, and a good-sized stick passed for a sword. With these tools in hand, I set off to practice for my career as a hero.
I quested in the backyard and on the playground and down by the creek near the cemetery. I fought evil juniper bushes and malicious swing sets. Sadly though, there was not much heroing to be done in my neighborhood and a princess to be in service of did not present itself and soon I put aside my dreams of adventure and fealty.
The second thing I wanted to be was an oceanographer. Seriously. It was John Denver’s fault. I can’t remember exactly when it was but there was a TV special with Jacques Cousteau and he took Mr. Denver out on his boat to scuba dive and watch the whales. I distinctly remember a segment detailing how John Denver had goggles made with prescription lenses. To a boy with coke-bottle glasses, this was incredibly fascinating. And there was the immensity of it all; the danger of the unknown, vast and dark and mysterious. I would fill the bathtub and submerge myself for as long as possible, practicing. And of course, there was the song. Aye Calypso! I sang that a lot. My enthusiasm waned when I discovered that an oceanographer has to spend quite a bit of time out on the ocean. A penchant for seasickness put an end to that dream.
It wasn’t long before I decided what I really wanted to be was a musician, preferably a Beatle. Yes, being a Beatle seemed the best course of action. They had name recognition and a body of work and a built-in fan base. Obviously, a great way to start off. I knew of course that the Beatles had broken up many years before but all they needed was a strong hand to bring them back together. And take over frontman duties. The only drawbacks were my inability to contact the members of the band and my complete lack of musical ability.
Next, I settled on being an artist. A famous artist. I would be renowned and revered. I knew I was the direct intellectual decedent of Picasso and Dali and Escher and Warhol. My paintings would be hung in galleries and museums. My pictures would be collected by wealthy patrons and prints would be turned into t-shirts and posters. And album covers. I would do lots of album covers because album covers were cool.
Oddly, this is actually something I had a talent for and what I eventually went to school to study. I learned a lot in art school. I learned that in order to be a famous artist you needed to be dedicated and determined. You had to be persistent and peruse your dream constantly. I spite of this I chose a different route. I chose to not actually do any of that and simply wait around for someone to discover me.
As of right now, I’m still waiting.
Actually, there was a long time of waiting. A long period of “I don’t know.” What do you want to do for a living? I don’t know. What do you want to be? I don’t know. What will you become? I don’t know.
I suppose there is a moment when what you want to be stops and you acknowledge what it is that you are. All those dreams not quite fulfilled and all those hopes not quite realized can be tucked away safely with the knowledge that they are in part responsible for getting you to where you are now. For me, all those things I dreamed of being were not things I really wanted to be. And what I am isn’t what I expected but turned out to be something special.
I met a beautiful woman and I married her. Together we had a beautiful child. I found a job that I love to do and one that where I can be creative while doing it. I met a group of friends whom I love and we talk about music and art and someday going whale watching or maybe on a cruise.
And when my daughter asked me that day, “what did you want to be?” I told her, “I wanted to be a hero.”
She said, “Well, you’re doing a good job.”
“Thank you, princess,” I whispered.
Originally published February 11, 2015