When we’re growing up, our parents notice styles of play, the toys to which we gravitate, whether we’re humming along to music at 2 months, if we seek out others to join in the fun, how often we take things apart and try to put them back together, or if we’re quiet and observant. What is witnessed leads to suppositions that Johnny will be a musician. Suzie will be a scientist, and Mary Jo – well, she’s just going to tell everyone what to do no matter where she winds up.
We expose them to dance lessons, boy scouts, band, choir, athletics, STEM classes, outdoor pursuits, and robotics competitions. We over schedule them and create opportunities for new passions to surface all in the hopes that one day, we’ll get an answer to “What do YOU want to do when you grow up?”
It’s a fair question, when you consider we have not outgrown the adult version of that question at business receptions and social gatherings. We don’t start with “What are your interests in life? Who are the people you love? Who has influenced you most in your journey? What is the latest thing you’ve learned and applied? What is a compelling recent great read?” Oh no – we start with “What do you do?” or worse “Where do you work?”- not a particularly original inquiry and a terrible reinforcement that if we’re not in action, and employed, somehow we’re not worth a conversation. It’s no wonder we turn this model of dialogue on our children at some point.
We are watching the world go through a birthing process into a new age of innovation that is galloping to an unknown destination. We think our world has changed tremendously and swiftly over the last twenty years. That wasn’t even the warm-up for the next metamorphosis, as artificial intelligence integrates into every aspect of life.
In tandem, we are observing a dearth of leadership in governance the world over, in our companies, organizations, and institutions, as the struggle to keep things “the way they were” juxtaposes against seeking to understand and adapt in new ways that compel us to good decisions for our times. Not only are we soldiering through this time period as adults, we are in this same moment laying the ground work as parents for the kind of leaders who will be available in the next 20-40 years to wrestle old and new problems to the ground.
It’s time to alter the questions we ask ourselves in cocktail parties, in interviews, and of potential leaders. It’s also the right moment to alter what we ask our children, as we impact their formation, their character, and their thoughts about the future.
Let’s consider asking them to ponder, “How do you want to serve?” “What contribution would you like to make to the world that will have an impact?” “What are you willing to sacrifice to ensure your purpose is fulfilled?” “Who will be better off because you were here?” “Who will you become in the context of making your home, local area, state, region, or nation a place everyone in the world desires to be?” Let’s stop the “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Or at least, let’s ask why and engage them in dialogue around how they will create a positive impact.
After all, it’s these beautiful, developing human beings who will populate every profession, industry, and leadership position in a new world of circumstances. We may not be able to understand all the variables they will encounter in their lives, but we can set them up to consider themselves leaders in whatever chosen path they take. We can help them be less egocentric and more considerate of others. We can remind them that it’s not just about “I’ve got mine” in their lifetime. It’s not about what they’re going to get out of life but what they are going to give into the lifetime in which they are born. Let’s create impactful leaders in every sphere of the world……by asking our children some new questions.