“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Every single adult that happens to make small talk with a child between the ages of three and eighteen seems incapable of coming up with any other question to ask.
When I was five years old, my go–to reply was that I wanted to grow up and become a monkey. I couldn’t think of a better 9–5 than swinging through the tree line hunting for fruit and other snacks. Not only did the day–to–day of the monkey seem incredible, I was certain at the time that monkeys also got to choose their own naptime. Sadly, this simian pipedream was short–lived. Once I learned that you can’t simply change species when you grow up, I was forced to settle for a new dream job: growing up to be just like Mom and Dad.
As a child, my parents really were my superheroes. They were capable of everything and anything. Together they seemed to possess an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge. No matter how unsolvable my youthful dilemmas appeared, they were always quick to offer a clear solution and provide a convenient answer to almost all of my questions. Although they didn't seem to have an answer to the age–old “where do babies come from” question, when I got older it turns out they even knew that one too. Not only were they smart—they were untouchable. Any protest over bedtime, sweets, and TV time was quickly quelled with an unbeatable counterattack, the dreaded “because I said so.” How could I not want to grow up to be as powerful as my parents?
When I got too old to simply answer the question with “I wanna be my dad when I grow–up!” I was never able to find a consistent answer. My dream jobs seemed to change with the wind. Although I answered with everything from philosopher to neurosurgeon, one thing was for sure: I wanted to be a grown–up. The grown–ups had it all. They had no bedtime, they didn’t have to sit at the kids' table, and their moms never covered their eyes as soon as the movie started getting interesting. From my youthful vantage point, the grown–ups seemed to be beholden to nothing but their own desires.
Hellbent on having the same freedoms that the adults did, I tried to speedrun my way through childhood. At every phase of growing up, I was constantly looking forward to the next step. In kindergarten, I couldn’t wait until I was in grade school surrounded by the “big kids.” When I entered high school, I spent every day dreaming of how much better life would be once I was afforded the freedom that a college campus provides.
But now that I’m in college, I exist in the weird liminal space between adolescence and true adulthood. At the ripe–old–age of 21, I now get the same legal privileges as all the other grown–ups; yet I’m still separated from the “real world,” or at least that’s what the gatekeeping “real” adults tell me, pretending they have it all figured out and always wear matching socks. I’m finally on the precipice of grasping what I’ve been longing for, yet adulthood isn’t what I imagined.
Although I may be trying to cope with and make excuses for my Peter–Pan syndrome, I can’t help but get the sense that these “grown–ups” are fucking full of it. The adults I wanted to become so badly seem to have it all wrong. Surrounded by the realities of the rapidly approaching real world, I refuse to believe that the people who inhabit it—individuals who seem to be more concerned with the contents inside their 401k than the contents inside their soul—have all the answers.
At first glance, the grown–ups may seem competent, but I have the feeling that the average adult has no better sense of purpose than I do. Turns out adults aren’t making all their own rules. And the freedom that I thought the real–world would offer me seems closer to incarceration than liberation. Obviously, everyone needs to get a job and “grow up” at some point, but having a job and a tax return doesn’t seem like the end–all, be–all. Growing up doesn’t mean you’re suddenly all the wiser or more virtuous.
At Penn (especially during recruiting season) the pre–professional attitude is pervasive. Everyone is in a rush to find a return offer, and it’s easy to feel like if you don't have a job lined up by the end of sophomore spring you’ll never amount to anything. However, I think that the rush is overrated. As everyone sprints towards the next stage of their life, I’m slowing down and trying to figure out what the next chapter should look like for me. Now, I’m less concerned with what I want to be and more focused on who I want to be when I grow up. I think it’s a better question anyways.