An alternative to the standard questions

One of my favorite memories is a conversation I had nearly 15 years ago with a colleague who had returned from a trip to Ireland. I asked him what most impressed him while there, thinking it would be the pubs, or the sweeping lush green of the landscapes or maybe sheep crossing the road like they own the place. (Click on that link. It’s worth it.)

Instead, he said what most struck him was the conversation. In his two weeks in Ireland, not a single person asked him what he did for a living. Instead, they asked about his family, his opinions and his interests.

“They couldn’t have cared less about my job,” he said. “It was wonderful.”

With their questions, his new Irish friends were trying to figure out who my colleague was as a human, not what he did for a living.

Think about that. When is the last time you didn’t ask someone you just met, “So, what do you do?” I know it has long been my go-to small talk question.

For college career counselors, a version of this question pops up hundreds of times each year. We probably ask students “What do you want to do?” more than we ask how they are. It’s a hazard of the job: We’re supposed to help young adults figure out a career path.

And it’s not like students haven’t been thinking about the question for a dozen or so years. They’ve been hearing some version of “What do you want to do when you grow up” for as long as they have memory.

But lately, perhaps because I’m on the cusp of a major birthday, or because I’ve lived long enough to realize careers often change, or because I’ve seen an increase in stress among late millennial and iGen students, I’ve been thinking we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe we should stop asking what someone wants to do as an adult and ask them what kind of adult they want to be.

Don’t get me wrong. Making a living is important, especially in a capitalistic country built on consumerism that also lacks universal health care, free child care and affordable higher education. If you want decent food, clothing, housing, health care and educational options, you need a good job. Full Stop. The Netherlands we are not, for better and for worse.

Additionally, work gives us purpose. I’m sure the cardiac surgeon who saves a life today goes home tonight feeling like a super hero. And how phenomenal is it to be the teacher who takes illiterate tiny humans and makes them readers, knowing that reading is the key to all future learning? The scientist who slaves for years to discover the cure for a disease and the politicians who struggle to spin gold out of straw with city budgets certainly are fulfilled in their work.

That said, the focus on picking just the right career can paralyze young people, turning them away from the more important, life-giving consideration of who they want to be as adults and how they might make a positive difference in the world.

This past semester in my day job, I’ve asked more students “Who do you want to be?” and “How do you want to change the world?” instead of “What do you want to do?”. I’ve found that we make more progress – and greatly reduce their anxiety – when the focus is on “being” instead of “doing.”

For instance, if I know a student’s deepest passion is advocacy for persons with disabilities, I can demonstrate how they can feed that passion through a variety of careers, and which college majors and volunteer experiences can help them get to those careers. They move from thinking there is only one path to each job and that if they don’t get just that job, they will be miserable to a more realistic (and hopeful) place. These “being” and “changing” questions help them understand that making a living is not the same thing as making a life. (And, spoiler alert, the latter is more important than the former.)

Thus far, it really seems to be helping. I have fewer panicked looks and more excited “I never thought I could do that!” responses. More importantly, I have young adults considering that the type of person they want to be should factor into the jobs they might – emphasis on might – want to pursue.

So maybe the next time you’re tempted to ask a pre-teen or teenager what they want to do when they grow up, consider switching tactics and asking what kind of person they’d like to be. Adventurous? Peaceful? Passionate? Cooperative? Leader? Then ask them what they think needs to change in the world and how they might be able to help. Take the information from those conversations and help illuminate the types of work that could use the kind of person they just described.

And, for all us working adults, perhaps when we meet new people this year we can do like the Irish. Skip “What do you do?” and ask instead about favorite books and movies, hobbies or even who the most inspiring person is in their family. We spend one-third of our lives at work and many of us spend another third complaining about it. Let’s talk to each other about something else in 2019.









 they think they might be able to help the world, what their favorite book or movie is (and why) and what they think is the most important thing in life. Get them to thinking about your middle school and high school children (or students), consider staying away from the typical “What do you want to do” question. Instead, ask them how they spend their free time. Ask them what they’d like to do to help the world. Help them focus on what kind of person they want to be as an adult –


2 Replies to “An alternative to the standard questions”

  1. As usual, excellent premise and writing. Happy birthday (a tiny bit early) my little sister.😘
    I wouldn’t have made it through the last 4 months without your help, love, and especially prayers.
    You keep inspiring the next generation. You are their beacon of hope and light


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