What are the origins of our aspirations? Do we make our own decisions? Are we truly self-made? Or are our thoughts open territory for others to invade?. Are we impenetrable stones or pliable hunks of clay, ready to be smashed into shape each passing day? And in all of this, is there a price to pay?
I remember asking this one girl what was her favorite thing she did in school that day, when she furrowed her eyebrows and stared intensely at the ground for a few moments. I was just about to start offering a list of fun suggestions, when she interrupted my-
“We did a lot of really fun things today, but I think my favorite was duck, duck goose!”
“Yeah? I love that game,” I answered, amused by her thoughtful pause and candor.
“Yeah! Except I can never catch anyone!” she squealed, crossing her arms and pouting a little, evidently frustrated with the relative speed and agility of her companions.
“Aww, I’m sorry.But hey, don’t worry about it. You’ll catch them all one day.” I patted her on the shoulder reassuringly.
She nodded vigorously before going quiet for a little while. Seizing the opportunity to ask one of my favorite questions, I ventured, “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
I always like asking children this question because it’s one that even a lot young adults struggle to answer. It also tells you a lot about their values, perceptions, and aspirations for future stability and happiness. As a child myself, I had gone from wanting to be a lamp (the light of people’s lives), to an artist, to a scientist, to a hippopotamus, to finally a doctor. In those simple words is an inquiry along the lines of: When you’ve obtained the intellectual and emotional maturity to contribute to society in some way, how would you go about doing it?
My little companion answered instantly, “A cardiac surgeon.”
Wait what? This girl couldn’t have been more than seven-years-old, and she wanted to be a cardiac surgeon. A cardiac surgeon.
“Uh huh,” she answered absent-mindedly as she watched an ant scuttle across the top of her shoe.
“A cardiac surgeon?” I repeated stupidly, striving to make sense of her oddly specific response. I would’ve been impressed had this girl just said doctor. But no, this girl took it one step above and beyond. This girl didn’t just want to be any kind of doctor. She wanted to be a cardiac surgeon.
“Because cardiac surgeons make a lot of money,” she answered coyly.
I inwardly groaned.
Oh god. Out of all of the answers she could’ve given me, this was definitely the worst.
“Anything else?” I inquired further, giving her the opportunity to redeem herself.
“Hmm, well I could also help a lot of people, since my parents say a lot of people have heart problems when they’re older.”
Ah ha! So it was the parents!
“What else have your parents told you about being doctor?”
She smiled broadly before saying, “That I’d get a fancy white coat, and a stethoscope, and that all of my patients would love me!”
“Well I mean, if you just want people to love and respect you, don’t you think that all students love their teachers? You don’t have to be a cardiac surgeon to get people to like you a lot.” I asked, gently challenging her ideas, seeking to broaden her perspective by just the slightest margin.
“Yeah, but being a doctor is different! You get to save people!” she insisted.
But couldn’t you argue that educators were equally essential? That they saved countless individuals from lives of hateful ignorance on a daily basis?
I wanted to question her further, asking her things like, “Couldn’t you also make a lot of money as a lawyer or an architect?” or “Did all compensation have to be financial in nature?”
But, hey, this girl was only seven, so I decided to cut her some slack.
After that, we dropped the topic of careers and got into an intense game of I Spy, and all was well on that bright sunny day. But I found our previous conversation hard to shake.
It was incredible how much of an impact people could have on our own thoughts and actions. With just a few wishful words, her parents had managed to direct this little girl’s hopes, aspirations, and dreams into becoming a professional in the medical field, an indubitably noble goal. But it still made me uncomfortable.
If we are constantly influenced by those around us, how can we ever distinguish our own dreams from those of our friends or family? In spite of their well-intentioned advice, wouldn’t a few words of encouragement suffice?