What do you want to be when you grow up?

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” As a child, I remember my mom contemplating this question to herself, quite literally, until the day she died. “Ma, you’re grown.” I’d either think to myself or sigh aloud, depending on my level of teenage assholeness on any given day. I’d go on, “Seriously, pick a different question.” She never did, though. Instead, as a mother of three in her late forties, my mom decided to go back to school, pursuing her medical assistant certification alongside a much younger crowd. She consistently earned top marks in her program (competitive much, Joyce?) and rejoined the workforce after decades of being a “stay-at-home” mom. Even today, that term irks me a bit—our family of athletes and musicians was rarely at home. Eventually, my mom landed a job at a wonderful allergist’s office at St. Joe’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. This would be the same office that, despite her only being employed there for less than a year, would volunteer to take on Joyce’s medical bills through her final battle with cancer.

I never got the chance to ask her—or maybe I did and I just don’t remember the answer (asshole teenager, remember)—What do you mean when you say “grow up”? Apparently, my mother, in her forties mind you, still didn’t see herself as “grown.”

So what does it mean to be grown up? What do you, dear reader, want to be when you grow up? And when, exactly, will that be? I suspect that many of us have had a conversation along the lines of “Where do I want to end up?” What city? What job? How much money? These questions loom over many of my clients, my friends & family--even myself. They’re reasonable, after all. Practical, even. It’s normal to have goals, ambitions, and desires for the future. But what does “end up” refer to? Your latest dream job? Eventual retirement? Death? And then, what if we achieve this goal before our obituaries are penned? What if we do end up “there”? What motivation do we have for the rest of our lives other than to simply keep living?

There’s another dilemma here, too; something else getting in the way of our dreams. We’re humans after all. We’re prone to instant gratification, tempted by whatever’s right in front of us in the moment. So how do we stay motivated day-to-day, hour-to-hour with a goal that we might not accomplish for years to come? How do we delay gratification?

Let’s say I have some free time on my hands. Maybe I’m at home after work, or it’s the weekend, or I just took a day off. I could start to learn a new coding language that will one day, I hope, result in a more exciting position, more money, a new location and all of that. I could start chipping away at that dream.

Or I could order food. Or watch an entire Netflix series. Or deep clean my apartment. Masturbate. Read the news. Scroll through Instagram. The list goes on. It’s endless, really.

For argument’s sake, let’s say we did have the discipline to sit down and start taking baby steps towards our dreams. Those steps are not, in and of themselves, a guarantee that we arrive at our destination. What about rejection? What about hearing “no”? What about working so hard for something only to be told that you’re not what they’re looking for? The more we want it, the more crushing “no thank you” feels. If I want to be a celebrated novelist and I’ve poured my blood, sweat, and tears into a work, but nobody is interested in publishing it, how do I avoid collapsing in on myself like a dying star? How do I keep going? Why don’t I just stop? Give up? Get a job as a copywriter. Over the years, work my way up the publishing ladder. That’s safe. That’s predictable. That’s not a fantasy.

Well, do that if you’re into feeling safe. If you don’t want to take a risk. If you don’t want to take a chance on yourself. If, however, your need to do “that thing” is greater than your fear, if it is what you’re called to do, then you’ll need a boat-load of courage and a healthy dose of the following:

  • Vision. You’re able to see beyond today and understand that no storm lasts forever. If, for whatever combination of reasons, your vision gets blurred or obstructed, know that you’ve chosen support staff that can lend you their glasses and perspective. For me, that’s Dan, my partner. When my blinders are on and I’m lingering on setbacks, he sits with me in that ditch and reminds me to look up.

  • Hard-headed Resilience. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to take good, honest feedback. What’s not so beautiful, however, is letting other people decide who you’re meant to be. You’ll need the self-assuredness to not take others’ opinions about what is “acceptable” personally. You are not them. Your definition of “acceptable” is yours alone. You are never required to explain why switching careers is the right move for you or to answer the question “But can you actually make a living doing that?”

  • Reinforcement. This goes back to our question about endurance. The ability to attack the daily work, however small it may seem, that moves the needle towards a bigger goal. Ask yourself, “How can I make completing this draft more important than this next episode of Russian Doll?” Maybe it’s a mantra that gets you through. Maybe it’s traditional, behavior reinforcement: for every sentence I write, I get an M&M. For every painting I finish, I get to go out for drinks. Whatever it is, just make sure you decide on something that will sustain you through the day’s work.

  • Celebration. You did it! You’ve sold out your art show! The Jerry Saltz review is a rave. Yes, of course celebrate in the traditional sense with a fabulous dinner, champagne, whatever. But also take the time to digest what you’ve done. Really reflect. Sit back and take in the phenomenal body of work you’ve carefully created and curated over time. If you just earned a C-Suite position, do the same. Think about where you were and how you got here. Think about every single day you spent slowly inching towards success. This thoughtful appreciation and reflection of your experience and mastery will help you see yourself more clearly and avoid the dreaded imposter syndrome in the future.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how boring life would be if we knew the end of the story. If we were already “grown.” Obvious, right? Oh, but don’t worry, our anxieties will work relentlessly to find that detailed road map, god bless them. To quote a bumper sticker: It’s not the destination. It’s the journey. I guess cliches are overused for a reason, some sort of universal truth rattling around in there.

Even her forties, my mom still may not have known what she wanted “to be.” But she certainly knew how she wanted to make others feel. I’m living proof of that. Actually, someone else comes to mind, too. At my mom’s funeral, there was a guest, a doctor who lived hours away, who no one knew or even recognized. He showed up briefly and only to see the immediate family, I believe. He approached us and explained that he had known my mom in high school. Back then she was a popular, beautiful cheerleader, he reminded us. And he was an outcast that was either to be avoided or bullied. Then he mentioned, “Your mom was the only person in that whole school that was nice to me then and I wanted you to know that.”

So yes, my mom may have always asked herself, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” And maybe her answer did change from year to year, one child to another. But I think she was taking steps towards it each and every day. I think there was something to the work she had been doing all along the way.