What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

Castle Crane
“Castle Crane” by Jesse Wagstaff, on Flickr used under CC BY 2.0

What was the most memorable event in 1998? Some people would argue that it was the year defined by Bill Clinton denying his “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky. Others would say it was the year Google was founded in Menlo Park, California. For me, however, 1998 was marked by my exploits in 5th grade. I was informed that the plural form of test is in fact tests, not testes. Pokemon cards were released in December of that year, which brought on a renewed obsession with catching ‘em all. Finally, it was the first time I heard the timeless question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Towards the end of 5th grade, I was chosen to introduce one of the speakers for career day. This came as a shock to me since I mixed up the words for genitals and exams. I had the honor of welcoming a chef at one of the local hotels. The chef spoke to us about the importance of education and how fundamentals learned throughout school translate to culinary skills. Even at that young age, I knew he was bullshitting us. He just didn’t want all of us to drop out to pursue careers slinging Pokemon cards.

The chef and I made small talk after his presentation and multiple attempts to crush my inner Ash Ketchum. We bantered about the weather, the multiplication table, and our favorite foods. Eventually, the chef got around to the most obvious subject and asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Since it was career day, I had been made to think about professions all week with endless journal prompts and trips to the library.

At eleven years old, I wanted to be either a Disney Imagineer or an inventor like the famous Thomas’, Edison and Jefferson. I dreamed of creating magnificent structures or indispensable gadgets that would make the world a better place. As an Imagineer, I would be able to design and build roller coasters at Disney theme parks. It seemed awesome, and it still does, to make something that is inherently cool. Also, I would be working at the Happiest Place on Earth! Just think of all the perks! I would have unlimited access to every Disney Resort in the world, ride all the different attractions whenever I felt like it, and meet all the Disney princesses.

On the other hand, as an inventor, I would be able to follow in the footsteps of favorite cartoon character, Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory. As a kid, I would race home every day after school to watch the boy genius fiddle away with robots and concoct potions in his basement. The history lessons at school helped me realize there were real men and women who did what Dexter does on the television screen. They used their ingenuity, along with hard work, to invent products that are ubiquitous now. In a time when the Gameboy Color and Nokia 3310 were considered cutting edge, I dreamed of creating a gadget that would change the world and make the lives of millions of people easier.

Throughout middle school and high school, I was asked the same question as I had in 5th grade. But instead of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” it was “What college do you want to go to?” or “What do you want to major in?” However, the question wasn’t as easily answered as it was in 5th grade. I couldn’t just research the topic at the library or answer a prompt in English class to find my answer. Thankfully, my college admissions counselor reviewed my excellent math and science scores and suggested I go into engineering or business. So with that advice, conversations with my parents, and serious consulting with Wikipedia, I found the answer to what seemed to be life’s most daunting question. I chose civil engineering as my intended major.

But, I couldn’t escape the question. In college, the question morphed into “What type of civil engineer do you want to be?” and “Where do you want to begin your practice as an engineer?” In an attempt to answer these questions, I took countless courses exploring different specialties. I also worked as an intern at various construction companies and consulting firms.

Over Christmas break of my sophomore year in college, I worked at a construction company for about five weeks. I shadowed an estimator and field engineer during my time there; my responsibilities included counting sign posts and calculating the volume of concrete. Once over lunch, one of my superiors asked about my studies in college. After listing a couple of courses I planned to take the following semester, he stopped me and basically told me that none of those subjects would be used on the construction site. That statement led to one of the most important things I learned from that internship: I did not want to go into construction management.

During the next two summers, I interned at a civil engineering firm. I designed water and sewer lines, laid out the curves of a highway, and sloped the hills around a school to prevent flooding. It was more of what I imagined engineering would be and a definite improvement over the previous internship. However, I didn’t feel satisfied at the job. I wanted more of a challenge, and to design something that was more noticeable. In the end, I chose structural engineering because designing buildings was originally why I got into engineering. I liked the idea of creating something tangible and iconic, something that will be appreciated and last hundreds and thousands of years.

It’s been 17 years since I first answered that big question. And now, at 27 years old, working as a structural engineer in Honolulu, I can’t help but wonder if I have fulfilled my childhood dreams. I think so. I don’t think my ten year old self would be crying if I told him what I did. I helped design a 30 story hotel, an assisted living home for the elderly, and an aircraft hangar. I use science and math every day to solve complicated problems that ensure the safety of thousands inhabiting a building. Although I don’t get to work in Disneyland, I get to call paradise home and be surrounded by friends and family.

It might seem a little silly to ask myself now, in my late twenties, what I want to be when I grow up. And by grow up, I mean where I see myself past the dreaded thirty year mark. To my shock, it wasn’t exactly what I was doing now. When I grow up, I want to be a stay-at-home dad. To many people, and even to me, this seems strange. Who aspires to be a stay-at-home dad anyway? Is that even a career option to check off in a 5th grade survey?

The idea of being a dad, let alone a stay-at-home dad, first came up during my second year as a Teach For America corps member. At the start of the school year, I was coaxed by my principal to start and coach the robotics team. Our team was part of the FISRT LEGO League, which challenged students with a new theme and robot game each year. One of the missions in that year’s competition involved building and programming a robot to tow a yellow farm truck. We struggled with this missions because the truck would always manage to slip loose halfway through its journey. The team recognized there was a problem with the hook and iterated on the design until the farm truck made it safely back to the base. I was amazed by their resilience and problem solving skills. Seeing someone else experience a “lightbulb moment” was better than having it for myself; it made me want to have a child and witness her experience these moments every day.

The concept of parenthood as a career was further impressed on me by various media outlets. The television show Up All Night featured a former lawyer turned stay-at-home dad. The father’s adventures with his baby daughter opened my eyes to the wonders and mishaps of raising a child. In an essay from The Atlantic, one of the law clerks for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explains why he took a year off from law to raise his daughter. He makes the case about being fair to his wife and not wanting to miss the firsts of his child’s life. These stories made being a stay-at-home appear less like a fringe idea and more of a possibility.

The first time this possibility was expressed outside of my head was on a recent trip to Manhattan to visit a former college classmate. It was fairly cool summer day, so we decided to catch up while walking through Central Park. Naturally, the topic of current jobs and future prospects came up. My friend asked me if I would still be in engineering five years from now. I thought about this question for a while, it was another iteration of the big question. I jokingly responded that in five years, I would quit my job as a structural engineer, marry someone insanely rich, have a kid or two, and become a stay-at-home dad.

The jest led to a somewhat serious discussion about the benefits of the job and basically how awesome it would be. I would essentially get to work at home, if you even call it work. I would wake up when my kids wake up, which should be pretty late because well they don’t have any responsibilities. I get to spend my day playing peek-a-boo, going to the playground, and taking naps. I would also have time to read, write these stories, catch up on TV shows, or (if I really had to) work at home. Best of all, I get to experience life a second time through my child’s eyes.

Just like in fifth grade, I am just looking at the benefits of the job without acknowledging the responsibilities and hard work. Of course, there are actual responsibilities: laundry, cooking, cleaning, and shuttling the munchkins to basketball practice in the minivan. Not to mention the enormous task and weight of being completely responsible for the physical, mental, emotional, and moral development of these human beings. I’m sure when the time comes and I’m closer to being a parent, I will be up to the task. I’ll probably be leaning heavily on Wikipedia and learning from practical experience just like I did in high school and college to prepare for my current career.

So what will be the most memorable event in 2020, or some other arbitrary year in the future? It might be the year when human beings land on Mars, or the year when humanity reaches singularity and everyone is terminated, or the year when Pokemon cards make a comeback and I get to live out my dream. But more realistically, it’ll be the year when my future child is born. I will get to be a stay-at-home dad and do all the amazing activities outlined above. However, it wouldn’t be the end to my lifelong question; I’m sure I’ll still be asking myself, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

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