“Who do you want to be?” has got to be the favorite question of every auntie out there. I remember being asked who do I want to be ever since I was four. In their defense – I had an answer set in stone: I want to be a programmer, just like my parents. Unlike most kids, my answer didn’t change at all as I grew up. I have now been a software developer for approximately a third of my life (9 years of the 27 I’ve existed on this planet).
At this point, I feel cheated. I was led to believe that picking a career is going to answer this dreaded question. When other people asked me this question, more often than not it was in the context of choosing a job. Now, there seems to be so much more to it. It’s no longer just “what do you want to do for a living?” – it’s also “who do you want to be as a person?”, “what are your priorities in life?”, and “what do you want to achieve and/or experience, given the fact that your lifespan is limited and you can’t have it all?”, just to name a few. Could be nice if someone asked these when I was four years old.
I think this is a good place to note that I was originally asked this question in Russian – hence the wording “Who do you want to be?” rather than “What do you want to be?”. I didn’t pay attention to these differences in speech until I saw a TED talk by Lera Boroditsky on how language shapes the way we think. Perhaps, if it was worded differently, I wouldn’t put so much weight on it. After all, you can be many different things, but you can only be one person.
Funnily enough, the first time I encountered the question of “Who do I want to be?” outside the realm of work is when I got interested in blogging, somewhere around the age of 14. Personal blogs were super popular then. I’ve set up my own, spent a couple of hours picking the perfect picture of my anime crush to put as the header, and then I got to the “about me” section. I couldn’t think of anything but “I’m Anna, and I’m 14 years old”. I gave up on that blog.
I tried blogging a few more times, but all of them failed. I couldn’t stay consistent, changed my mind a lot about what I’d already published, and deleted everything again and again. I then discovered the concept of a niche, and struggle to find one for myself because I’m interested in so. many. things. Yet, I couldn’t keep posting about any of them exclusively. This innocent question of “who do I want to be?” came back to haunt me in the context of who I want to be online, and eventually, who I want to be in life (outside of my career) as well.
I longed to be a “go-to” person for something. I had a friend that was all about weightlifting and helped people with their fitness journeys, another one that was a great cook and knew the best places to shop for fresh groceries, a third one that could play any imaginable instrument and improvise beautifully… and then there was me, with a ton of surface level interests that I have researched the theory on but never did anything in practice and had no expertise.
One time, when I whined about it to my boyfriend, he asked why is this so important to me. I replied, “How can it not be, I don’t know who I am! I’m just a programmer, but I don’t want to be what I do for work”. He then questioned whether I stop being me if I no longer code. Of course not! You don’t understand me. He shrugged it off and we continued our walk in silence.
Despite me being so dismissive of this thought, it stuck in my head. Maybe if ceasing to do something doesn’t make me less myself, then becoming an expert in something else doesn’t make me more myself. Perhaps, the issue is not with my answer to “Who do you want to be?” but with the question itself.
Different people might have different opinions on how this question is problematic, but my two issues with it are: you have to know the answer, and you have to want it.
Society expects you to answer this question at some point, and rather sooner than later – and at the same time it looks down on people who change their mind often. But with this big and abstract question, it’s impossible to give an answer that will last forever. There’s no winning here – you either don’t know who you are, or you pick an identity and hold on to it for dear life to avoid the judgment for having a change of heart.
As for wanting to be something or someone – I have a hard time defining what this means. It could be cool to be an astronaut. Yet, I’m not doing anything to become one – I don’t think the efforts required are worth it. Still, if someone offered me to become an astronaut with a flick of a wand I’ll agree without hesitation. Does it mean I want it? Maybe I just don’t want it enough?
If wanting something only counts when I’m willing to work for it, the question cannot be answered until I achieve that goal – it’s the only proof that I actually want it. On the other hand, if pure desire is enough (without any action to back it up) the question becomes somewhat pointless – I could “want” to be anything and everything, and it would have exactly zero effect on my life.
It took a few years (and too many therapy sessions to count) for me to realize and accept that this question does not have a single answer. I’m everything that I do, everything that I feel, everything that I think. No person can be distilled into a one-sentence description. Unless that sentence is “I’m Anna, and I’m 27 years old”.
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