It’s a question we get asked a lot as little kids, perhaps in kindergarten or even pre-school, not just by our friends, classmates or teachers but family, parents and the world at large. Answers vary from the “ordinary” (“I’m going to be a teacher/nurse/business person!”) to the exotic (“I’m going to be a firefighter/pilot/famous!”) and to the fantastic (“I’m going to be an explorer!”).
Some of us grow up to be exactly who we wanted to be. For those lucky few, I congratulate them in their achievements, their single-mindedness and ability to stay focused on their goals. Some of us grow up not knowing who we want to be, but find ourselves falling into our dream career along the way. I congratulate them too.
Most of us grow up to be something other than who we wanted to be. Maybe it was because of pressure from family and friends. Maybe we lost sight of the goal. Maybe we thought we weren’t good enough. Maybe we let the opportunities slip by.
We grew up, forgot how to dream and now we ask little children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and we chuckle at the answers. Sometimes in affection, sometimes in amusement; oftentimes in part-disbelief and part-condescension.
For me, it was fear.
Ever since I can remember, I grew up living and breathing music. I loitered outside the door when my aunt gave piano lessons on the weekends in her Hong Kong apartment, sneaking peeks through the keyhole and then climbed up on the stool and tried to mimic her students between lessons. There’s a baby photo of me with one of those telephone keyboard hybrid toys, smiling as I dial away on the keys. After we moved to Sydney, I remember not wanting to eat dinner because I wanted to finish learning the “A Dozen A Day” piano exercises I started two hours before, a timeframe in which my parents thought I would surely tire of the activity and happily come to the table for food.
I went to class singing songs in my head – if it was a music class, it became either singing or playing songs aloud – and between classes there was more music with choir practice, auditions for school productions, chamber choir rehearsal, vocal ensemble rehearsals, piano lessons, piano competitions – the list goes on and on. I collected a bunch of trophies and certificates from eisteddfods and exams; performed in the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Town Hall; held various roles in various school productions; I even went on a month-long tour of Italy with school, singing in St Mark’s Venice Cathedral.
It all stopped in Year 11. After I had gotten my L.Mus.A and finished my music HSC two years early, it came to a critical point where I had to make a call. Would I continue to pursue my music dream? Or would I look somewhere else?
I decided to look somewhere else. Despite dreaming – for years – of studying music in New York, I decided to play it safe. I studied “traditional” subjects, like English, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Software Design and Development. I stopped all my extracurricular music activities – I turned down being Choral Captain, quit the vocal ensemble, the chamber choir, and the choir – and focused on academic studies. I applied for and got paid accounting internship offers with both Ernst & Young and KPMG, a great UAI and got into the prestigious University of New South Wales, arguably one of the best in the southern hemisphere for studying a Bachelor of Commerce with a double major in Accounting and Finance.
This world of numbers, rules, regulations, accounting and auditing standards and legislation is as far away from music as you can get.
Sometimes I run into people I got to know in the piano competition circuits around Sydney, like Van Anh Nguyen, who stuck with their dream of music and brought it to life. She’s established her own entertainment agency, a music school and found a way to make it all work. I really admire her courage.
When a little kid tells us “I’m going to be an explorer!” we don’t tell them that we already know everything there is to know about the world (we don’t), we don’t tell them there are no more lands to explore (there are, unless you’re living The Truman Show) and we don’t tell them this isn’t a practical career. We tell them “That’s wonderful!” and to study history and geography, join the boy scouts/girl guides/brownies/Duke of Edinburgh/Outward Bound programs and give them books about famous explorers or exotic places.
It’s not until that kid grows up (and in today’s society, that sort of happens around about the middle of high school, when you get your first chance to pick your elective subjects) that we start crushing their dreams. If it’s our son or daughter, we’ll smile a worried or an exasperated kind of smile and timidly question “But honey, don’t you think you should try something more practical? How would you pay the bills? What about accounting? There’s always jobs in accounting and they pay well.” If it’s our friend, we treat it as a big joke and laugh it off – or worse, dismiss it completely. “Oh come on, you don’t really want to do that, you’d have to give up XYZ then!”
Why do we do discourage and obstruct each other as we get older? Is it because we’re resentful that we didn’t stick to our dreams? If so, why do we take it out on other people instead of doing something about it ourselves?
When we see someone do something as remarkable as actually achieving their goals, we talk about how amazing it is, treat them as a one-of-a-kind individual who had the luck of the universe on their side and we write it off as something beyond our ability to accomplish. And we go back to our daily lives and forget all about it, though some of us might secretly wish that person was us.
I don’t think those people are one-of-a-kind people. I think we can all be who we want to be. And I think the key lies in those around us and ourselves in believing we can be who we want to be.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I don’t want to be an external auditor anymore.
I’m 23 years old today and I’m going to turn 24 this August. I think I still have plenty of time left to grow up. And when I grow up, I want to write Broadway musicals.