Think back to childhood for a moment. Do you remember the first time someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up?  What did you answer?  While a popular question to ask children and oh so cute to hear their answers (one 2009 survey revealed “superhero” as the most popular answer among five-year-olds), the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question risks some negative unintended consequences.

Psychology Today readers are a different lot as they tend to be more self-reflective and seek to grow and understand their inner drives and motivations. Even so, PT readers may most able to relate to the dangers inherent of asking children about their future career path.

For instance, how many people can understand grieving the loss of a dream job? How many suffer from lowered self-esteem because they don’t feel their job is status-worthy or didn’t fulfill someone else’s expectations of them? Or how many are still trying to prove their worth by pursuing something so big that they can finally feel validated and worthy?

The challenge with asking a child what they want to be when they grow up is that it immediately sets up an expectation (and gives a meta-message) that the child is worthy by what he does, not who he is as a person—and that the means to seeking identity is external, not internal. It also inadvertently implies that a job is the ultimate goal of life—and happiness.

No wonder so many people are depressed and disappointed. They didn’t get the dream job of superhero and had to settle for something less. Then they felt like something was wrong if they didn’t have a certain level of money and status. Yet another wake-up call exists for those that have left lucrative careers to find happiness elsewhere only to discover that the more ‘meaningful’ job still left them dissatisfied.

The old adage is fitting—wherever you go, there you are. Instead of focusing on what you want to be when you grow up, try asking yourself who you want to be when you grow up. Ideally, the answer is YOU. Listening to your inner voice and seeking internal validation over external validation is the key to authenticity, happiness, and true joy in any job you do.

A classic example is the story of the two bricklayers:

An older man on bended knee grunts as he picks up a stone and heavily lays it upon a layer of mortar. He looks miserable and has a permanent frown wrinkled into his leathered tan face. He wipes sweat from his brow and bemoans how he hates his job but must do it to support his family. A man of same age and build sits next to him doing the same tasks. There is something different about him though. He has a sparkle in his eye and a glow about him. He places the stone neatly into the mortar grooves and smiles satisfactorily, explaining that he is building a cathedral to God.

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