Joey, 6: “Daddy, when I grow up I want to be a baker!”
Will, 3: “Daddy, when I grow up I want to be Batman!”
At the tender ages of 3 and 6 my children are already talking about what they want to be when they get older. What they want to ‘do’ with their lives. This is not a concept we’ve introduced to them as parents – they’ve just naturally picked the idea up. It’s ingrained in our society. Schools are set up to prepare children for careers, and to funnel them towards something specific as quickly as possible.
Whilst I’m not a fan of this system at all, and feel there is pressure on children and teenagers to define their career paths far too early, I have no problem with the concept of kids looking forward at their future selves. Thinking about the future, dreaming of taking on something interesting, of doing something great – this is all good.
On my 21st birthday my dad gave a speech that resonated so strongly with me that I think about it most days, and I will never forget the sentiment it held. Rather than speaking of achievements and accolades, and pride in things like grades and career potential, he took a different angle. The general, condensed gist of it was this -
“Son, it matters not to me what you choose to do in life. What matters to me is who you become as a person. Remember this as you go on your way – ‘It is not what you do, but who you are.’ That is what’s important.”
When I started University my plan was to become a lawyer, but it didn’t go that way at all. After attempting (but not really committing to) legal studies, followed by various other subjects (that I was equally uncommitted to), I bailed on tertiary education and hit working life instead. I worked through the ranks in various sales roles, before setting off to start my own company. Alongside two other guys we built it up over the course of a few years, and were acquired by some Silicon Valley big guns. Our hard work had paid off, I was ‘winning’ the career game.
Were my parents proud? You bet.
Fast forward 18 months to today, and life has swung in a drastically different direction. I was made redundant after 8 months with our acquisition company, and had not long been working in an exciting new role before I became sick with a long term illness. After all that, I made the decision to resign – not just from my job, but from the career I spent 8 years crafting for myself. I have now officially left the fast-paced world of Internet startups behind.
What am I now? I’m a full time stay at home dad.
Are my parents proud? You bet.
Had my father’s sentiment not been etched in my mind over the past few months I would probably be struggling for identity right now. Without the foundation of knowing myself and placing importance on who I am, much of my identity would have been tied to those 8 hard-fought career years. Leaving them behind, illness or not, would have been horrendously painful.
So when I hear my eldest son saying he wants to be a baker, or my youngest saying he wants to be Batman, I don’t imagine them as those things when I look forward (as adorable as my 3 year old looks in a Batman costume). I try and picture them as the people they’ll be. What do I value, what do I want to see in them? I want to see kind, thoughtful, considerate men. I want their eyes to be open to the world around them – to the issues we face as people, and to the needs of others. I want them to be humble, caring and honest.
What they do with their life isn’t the point. Will I be proud if my sons forge ground-breaking careers in medicine? Of course. Will I be just as proud if they choose a path that isn’t at all financially rewarding and has no social status? You’re damn right I will be. I’ll be there to support and encourage them through whatever they decide to take on in life.
If I can teach my children this sentiment from early on – It’s not what you do, it’s who you are – then perhaps they can set all that social pressure aside and switch their focus to who they want to become as people. This, I hope, will lead them towards what they really want to do with their lives, and give them the time and breathing space to consider what will make them truly happy.
Then, when the foundations of life shift as they have for their dad, they’ll have that conviction in who they are to keep them strong, stable and positive, whatever their revised future holds.