What do you want to be when you grow up?
Why do adults ask children that question? Are they expected to know? On the one hand, the question can prompt some introspection and perhaps a realization that they have a future which they can/should consider. On the other hand, it can be overwhelming because of all that the question implies.
I envied kids who knew what they wanted to be. Evelyn, my classmate in elementary school, wanted to be a doctor. Though I lost touch with her ages ago, I know through the wonders of the Internet that she achieved her goal.
A lot goes into achieving that goal, starting with knowing that’s what you want. Then, you have to navigate the path, and, finally, you need to have the resources and wherewithal to complete it. None of that is easy. But, for those who don’t know what they want, or for those who want a career where the path isn’t well-defined, the process can be quite fraught.
Readers of this blog may remember that I wanted to be a sportswriter when I was young. I read Marv Albert’s book, “Krazy about the Knicks,” in which he described his journey, starting with “broadcasting” games from his seat in the stands of Ebbets Field. Inspired by him, I wrote up every Knick game in a notebook (I still have that notebook).
I was worried that being a girl would hinder my prospects. I wrote to the Yankees when I was 14, and had just gotten my working papers, asking for any type of job. I wrote that I was strong enough to be a vendor in the stands, carrying Cracker Jacks or whatever (not beer, since I wasn’t of age). I got a polite rejection letter. As I’ve shared on the blog before, I continued writing sports through college when my enthusiasm for it vanished without explanation.
When I was even younger (less than ten years old), I tried my hand at writing a short story. As was often the case, I was in Nana’s kitchen while she visited with her two brothers and their wives. They were seated at the marble table, having coffee and chatting. Mostly I listened. But Uncle Morris and Uncle Jack were kind enough to engage me in conversation. They always asked about my interests. I must have mentioned that I wrote a story. They wanted to read it. I ran downstairs to retrieve my story; a couple of pages handwritten on loose-leaf paper. I presented it to them and left, too embarrassed to be present while they read it. When they finished, they called me back upstairs. They had bemused smiles on their faces. They asked where I had gotten the idea for the story. I have no recollection what it was about. I do remember feeling terribly self-conscious. They weren’t unkind, but given my level of insecurity as a baseline, I gave up writing fiction.
I still wanted to write, though. I had a good friend Cindy who shared my sensibilities. When we hung out, we would write fake newscasts (long before Weekend Update on SNL) and tape them on a small cassette recorder. We laughed so hard we cried. I don’t know if it occurred to us to share them, but we never did.
One time, Cindy and I decided to try something different. We worked on a play. I don’t recall the specifics, but I do remember Cindy making a suggestion that created major conflict between the characters, I think jealousy between siblings. I was so impressed that she could come up with that idea. At that point I knew enough about storytelling to understand the need for dramatic tension, but I had no idea how to construct it. Once again, I internalized the message that I didn’t have the talent to write.
I think I grew up looking for evidence that I didn’t have the goods to be a writer, even though another part of me felt driven to do it. I learned sportswriting didn’t satisfy the urge. An unformed notion that I needed to write still lived inside me, but I didn’t have the confidence and I didn’t see a defined path to continue pursue it. I got a job instead.
It is one of the great challenges of growing up – finding that path. Finally, at 55 years of age, four years ago, I went to look for it. Fortunately, I realize I haven’t finished growing up.