Don’t ask children what they want to be when they grow up

When you are little, words you say have little consequence. You could say anything and get away with it.
So I wrote down ‘teacher.’
I didn’t actually want to be a teacher but I didn’t know what else to write. I didn’t know how other jobs were like.
I looked at my seat mate’s answer. She had written down, ‘doctor’.
Doctor? I wondered. Why would anyone want to be around sick people all the time?

A few years after that, I changed my answer to ‘lawyer’.

‘Lu Wee, you are so good at arguing you should be a lawyer!’ my mother had shouted at me one day after a heated argument.
I was 9 years old and I took my mother’s words to heart. So that day onward, I told all the adults who asked about my ambition, ‘I want to be a lawyer!’
Most of them gave me an astonished look, but praised me anyway. ‘So young and so determined already!’ they would say.
For five years after that I was set on becoming a lawyer. Until one day, of course.
‘Lu Wee,’ my mother said to me, ‘look at this news.’
I looked at it, but didn’t know what my mother was trying to say.
‘A famous lawyer,’ she read, ‘murdered. The gangster had lost a case because to him had done it.’
‘Why do you have to kill someone because they proved that you were wrong?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ my mother said, ‘not everyone wants to face the consequences of their actions. So they feel angry when someone gets in their way.’
I thought about it. Up until that point I had never imagined that people would act in such an unfair manner.
‘They also raped his wife,’ my mother said.
A pause.
Then, my mother told me, ‘Lu Wee, you should not be a lawyer.’
‘What? But you said yourself this was the best job for me…’ I felt disappointed. I had set myself on the idea of becoming a lawyer. And now, I had to change.
‘Precisely. You might be good enough to get killed by someone like this,’ she replied.
‘But that’s unfair! It would be my duty is to provide justice. Murdering people for that… that’s not right,’ I told my mother.
‘I just want you to be safe. Choose another job.’

‘I don’t know.’

When I became a form three student, people started asking each other about college. The most popular question was, ‘Which country do you want to go to?’
Most of my classmates wanted to leave Brunei for Australia and the UK. These two countries were where most of our seniors had gone.
Then came the harder question: What do you plan to study?
When the question finally rolled around to me, I did not know what to answer.
So I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m still thinking about it.’
In my heart, I wished I could write for a living. But somehow I had convinced myself that that was not a real job. My next choice had been a designer. Either a product designer or a fashion designer.
But as the top student of my school, I could not say that. So I thought long and hard about an acceptable answer.
‘Doctor,’ I told them, finally, ‘a doctor or an engineer.’
When they asked me how I came up with that answer, I explained, ‘Because I’m good at math and science.’
Later I would realise how flawed this answer was. Being good at something does not always mean you should work in the same field.
Worse, my lies became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Over the next few years, I worked hard to excel in science and math.

More time to think

I bought more time to think about what I wanted to become when I grew up by enrolling in ‘A’ levels. That gave me an extra two years to think about the ‘big’ question.
But even after I had cleared my final paper, I did not have an answer.
I looked around me. What were other straight A students doing?
Oh, they were applying to become doctors and engineers.
So I did the same, but less so the doctor and more so the engineer.
I was too afraid of blood and disgusted by bare organs to become a doctor.
But I applied anyway.
I sent one single application for a Degree in Medicine to the National University of Singapore (NUS).
I clicked ‘Submit’ and prayed that I would get rejected. I applied so I could tell people that I tried.

Prayers were answered

I was upset when I received it. Your application was unsuccessful, they told me in the email.
I was not upset because it meant I could not be a doctor. It was that I did not like rejection in general.
Looking back, applying for a degree in a field that I abhorred was one of the riskiest things I ever did in my life.
I could have ended up spending six years becoming someone I did not really want to be.

So, don’t ask children what they want to be when they grow up

They would probably lie, or say something when they mean something else.
Instead, ask them what they like doing and what makes them happy. Then encourage them to be the very best in that thing.
In this way, they will become better and better at what they love. Then, one day, they might be able to make a living out of what they love.

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