Asking a kid, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” seems to be as much for adult amusement as anything else. After all, what four-year-old can actually predict what they want to be? And besides, if we all became what we wanted to be when we grew up, there’d be a lot of farmer/ballerina/astronauts out there and maybe not enough data analysts or building engineers. Of course, there are exceptions: people who decided what they wanted to be pretty early in life… and actually made it happen. Of course, being a teacher or a veterinarian looks a lot different than you think it might when you’re ten. (Who knew almost every job involves paperwork and meetings, even the dream ones?)
So what is it really like when the dream comes true? We asked six women to tell us everything.
Interviews have been edited for length.
Natalie, 27, Interior Designer
“I remember one very specific moment that made me want to be an interior designer. I used to go to Chicago every summer to visit my grandmothers, and would take the architectural boat tour through downtown. At one point, probably around age 10, my grandma pointed to a building, the Merchandise Mart, while we were on the tour and said something along the lines of, "You have to be a very special type of person to get into that building -- designers only." After that, all I wanted to do was get into that building, see whatever was in there, and be a part of that world!
In high school, I started taking art classes and preparing a portfolio to apply to architecture school. We didn’t have formal drafting classes, so I did the best I could reading books and learning about the profession outside of schools. I ended up attending Kansas State University because their Master of Interior Architecture and Product Design program was top ranked. Architecture school is pretty grueling, which is the only time I ever really questioned my choice. The late hours, constant deadlines, and harsh critique of projects can really get you down after awhile!
I finally got to go into the Merchandise Mart a few years ago, and see all the showrooms and products displayed there, and it was just as exciting as I imagined.”
Emily, Public Defender, 30
“Growing up I had a placement with all the presidents on it and my dad taught me all the presidents in order so I became really intrigued with being the president. I thought being a lawyer was the way to get there. That was when I was around four or five. As I got older I stopped wanting to be the president but I never stopped wanting to go to law school to help people.
I remember meeting with my middle school principal and my parents and talking about which foreign language to take. I wanted to take Latin because I thought it would help me with law school and the legal phrases. My parents convinced me Spanish would actually be better for when I started working as an attorney (... never became fluent in Spanish). It really affected most decisions for me. I went to a college where I had no loans because I knew I’d have significant debt after law school.
Now that I’ve been doing it for 5 years and I’ve seen first hand the arbitrariness of how different people are treated under the law, it gives me a reason to continue doing it.”
Marlea, Pediatric Physical Therapist, 32
“I went through multiple bouts of physical therapy over my elementary and high school years and remember the impact and healing I gained from those. I also found healing so interesting. Once I was exposed to working with children with special needs, my determination to become specialized in pediatrics was the push to finish. I expected the reward of working and helping children, and how fun it is to work with children. But the documentation is the least fun part of the job.”
Jessie, Dance Director, 42
“I always loved dancing but when I was about 13 years old, I went on pointe and knew immediately I wanted a career in dance. At 14, I began assistant teaching and fell in love with it. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was teaching my own full load of classes on top of attending high school, taking my own dance classes, rehearsing and performing. My career path was the biggest reason I chose the college I did. They offered a "Dance Pedagogy" fine arts degree, which is literally a dance teaching degree.
Professional dance opportunities are few and far between. Most students will not have professional careers in dance, but they will remember the life lessons they learned in dance class. They will remember how to achieve, how to be on time, how to be prepared, how to think quickly on their feet, how to be adaptable, how to be a leader and set a great example, how to problem solve, what it means to have a great work ethic, and how to be successful humans in this world. I feel a great responsibility to my part in raising these kids. I am so fueled by my art and working with my students. This is what I was meant to do.”
Jessica, Veterinarian, 29
“I get the impression that a lot of children want to be veterinarians at some point, so I always say that I’m just one of the ones that never changed my mind. I recently found this notebook in my parents’ attic entitled, “Interesting Animal Facts,” where I had compiled articles and pictures about various animals starting at about seven years old. I absolutely adored our pets and loved caring for them; at the time, I thought that was enough to equip me for the job… but I learned otherwise.
In high school, I shadowed several local veterinarians to grasp what was actually involved with the job -- turns out, much more than kissing puppy ears. The dream of becoming a vet almost completely dictated the college I attended, and the jobs I had during school and summer breaks. I worked at a dairy farm and small animal clinic throughout college. During my undergraduate years, I had periods of time where I was concerned I hadn’t explored or entertained enough career options (and even still wondered if I just settled for the first job that struck my fancy), but ultimately, I hadn’t found anything to deter me from veterinary medicine or any alternative careers that appealed to me more strongly.
Of all the things I expected being a vet to be, the only expectation that turned out to be true is that I get to interact with animals on a daily basis. This may seem like a no-brainer, but honestly, WHAT A GIFT! How cool that I get to see 10, 20, 30 different animals on any given day?! I can’t imagine life without this constant interaction with all the other species we share this planet with.”
Jessie, Science Teacher & Director of STEAM Engagement, 31
“I have always liked children and interacting with other people. I wanted to be a physician or pediatrician as well as teacher. I now have a PhD in Materials Science, so ... I'm a doctor! But not that kind of doctor. I've always thought of myself as someone who wants to help, so teaching felt really fitting
When I first wanted to teach, it was to help other people and work with other people. Now my two big reasons: help support girls in science and help increase science literacy for everyone. I feel it's my duty to make sure students get good lessons in science. I am a lady with a PhD with a vaguely androgynous name, I know what it's like to face sexual discrimination. I teach at an all-girls school. I don't ever lie to my students and tell them it's easy. I tell them my hardships so that they know what support looks like, so they know what advocacy looks like. I want them to love science as I love science and to ignore the haters as they go for it.”
This year, I received two thank you cards this year that said, "I never thought of myself as a science kid until I had you.” I always hoped for the sappy TV moments like in Stand and Deliver, but was not prepared to actually experience it. It is re-affirming and powerful.”
Ellisa, 52, Wine Educator
“My first favorite television program was That Girl. According to family legend, when I was around four years old, I started telling people I wanted to, "live in New York City, have an apartment, a job, a boyfriend, and not a husband. Just like Ann Marie [the show’s main character].” That’s my life since I moved here 29 years ago!
As a kid, I wanted to be a doctor, so I expected to go to college or medical school in NY. In high school, I was a stand-out singer and studied opera for many years, so, of course, I would sing with The Met. I've gotten to immerse myself in several careers -- restaurants, jewelry, music. But I regularly say that I will have to be taken out of my rent stabilized apartment feet first.
Recently, I was Marie Kondo-ing my apartment and found a stash of old day planners. I had completely forgotten that in the summer of 2001, I was planning to move back to my home state. After 9/11, I knew I couldn't abandon the city. But I never dreamed my subject would be wine. I grew up in a dry county and was raised in a tee-totaling church.”