Psychologist Adam Grant: This is one of the most harmful questions parents can ask their kids—here’s why

By Adam Grant for

What do you want to be when you grow up?

As a kid, that was my least favorite question. I dreaded conversations with parents and other adults because they always asked it — and no matter how I replied, they never liked my answer.

When I said I wanted to be a superhero, they laughed. My next goal was to make it to the NBA, but despite countless hours of shooting hoops, I was cut from basketball tryouts three years in a row. In my first semester of college, I decided to major in psychology, but that didn’t open any doors — it just gave me a few to close.

I was still aimless, and I envied people who had a clear career plan, like my cousin Ryan.

Checking all the ‘right’ boxes

From the time Ryan was in kindergarten, he knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up: a neurosurgeon. Becoming a doctor wasn’t just the American dream — it was the family dream.

When Ryan was looking at colleges, he came to visit me. As we started talking about majors, he expressed a flicker of doubt and asked if he should study economics instead. But he abandoned the idea. Gotta stay on track.

In his last year of med school, Ryan applied to neurosurgery residencies. But he wasn’t sure if he was cut out for it — or if the career would leave any space for him to have a life. He wondered if he should start a health care company instead. But when he was admitted to Yale, he opted for the residency. Gotta stay on track.

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