What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

My heart dropped. I immediately felt sick to my stomach. The room started spinning. I could feel my mouth become sticky and my hands became freezing cold and they started to sweat.

Spoiler alert! A professional basketball player, I am not.

One of the most cherished attributes of childhood is the ability to dream…and to dream big. Where your only limits are the creative thoughts of your mind. No limitations. No boundaries.

Want to be a doctor? Of course you can. Want to be a teacher? You will be the very best. Cure cancer? No problem! Travel to Mars? Simple!

Yes, adolescent exuberance and unfettered envisaging, allow the innocence of free thought and expectation to flow effortlessly through the mind of a young boy. It’s too bad we must advance in years, where the hard cruel world continues to discourage such thought and snuffs out the dreams and aspirations of our childhood.

I remember clearly the moment when it happened to me. It was in the sixth grade. I was at the tender age of 12 years old. The assignment: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Finally, a school assignment to get excited about. This wasn’t complicated mathematics, or boring reading…I finally had an assignment I was really excited to engage in. I already knew the answer! This was an assignment, if ever there was one, where I had a guaranteed “A.”

The assignment came with instructions written out on a form. They explained I was to list my top three choices for future professions, and then to provide the supporting detail on how I would achieve the goal of becoming each of those chosen professions.

I enthusiastically engaged!

  1. Professional Basketball Player

Looking at the empty slots for the second and third choice, I thought to myself, “Why do I need to write anything in either of these two slots? I’m going to be a professional basketball player, so who cares about any other professions?”

I proceeded to fill out the detail behind my chosen career choice.

“I will practice basketball every day.”

“I will play basketball in college.”

“Then I will play in the National Basketball Association.”

I wrote each word out very carefully, paying particular attention to my penmanship and legibility. After all, this was the crowning event of my scholastic achievement to date.

Sitting back in my chair, I reviewed my plan. It was foolproof! I could see in my mind’s eye, my teacher reading my short essay and then look at me and say, “This is a magnificent proclamation! You WILL play basketball professionally. You will make millions of dollars!”

I could almost hear the crowds cheering!

In order to finish the assignment, I quickly filled out the other two career options…a dentist, and a businessman. But I thought, “these two don’t even matter. I’m going to play in the NBA!”

Most school assignments in the seventh grade didn’t come with a one-on-one meeting with the teacher, and this assignment was the only one I remember having a parent attend the teacher-student pow wow. Nonetheless, I looked forward to the meeting where I proudly presented my master’s thesis.

I really liked my sixth-grade teacher. He was a boy’s man. He related really well to young boys. He had a high tolerance to the little annoying adolescent antics, yet he had a way to correct without crushing. He was tall and slim, with greying hair on both sides of his head, but bald on top. He had a deep booming voice that held a particular gravitas and respect.

My mother and I sat across from him in his classroom. The light reflected off his shiny head as he seemed to tower over us both even while sitting.

He pulled my essay from his stack of papers and discussed the importance of the assignment. I looked at him, then looked at my mother. Then I looked back at him, my face beaming with pride and confidence. For the first time ever, I sat with a teacher and a parent not worrying about what hammer was about to fall.

“I’ve read your career choices,” he started. “Do you know how many boys have come to this meeting over the years, stating they want to play professional basketball or football? Seemingly hundreds!,” he said with an indication of annoyance. “And do you know how many of them have become professional athletes?”

Oh no. What was going on? His tone was far from supportive; I must be missing something. I quickly straightened up in my chair and focused with laser precision on his every word.

“Zero!,” he continued. “That’s how many. Zero! What makes you any different?”

My heart dropped. I immediately felt sick to my stomach. The room started spinning. I could feel my mouth become sticky and my hands became freezing cold and they started to sweat. I started to shake.

In an instance, my confidence was crushed, and was immediately replaced by fear. I could feel the tears welling up and I was afraid I couldn’t control them. I didn’t want to cry in front of my teacher. I didn’t, but I wanted to.

“It is extremely difficult make the NBA. Less than 1% of all players become professional,” he continued as he surveyed the rest of my paper. “You’d better focus on some other career options.”

Never before had any boy been as devastated as I was at that moment. For the first time I could remember, the world had given me a blow, that immediately made question my abilities, my goals, my dreams. For the first time ever, there were limits, there were boundaries. Boundaries that I had no idea even existed. If I couldn’t become a professional basketball player, what else could I not become?

A piece of me died that day.

Thirty-five years later, I reflect back on that day, not knowing whether I should feel sad or mad, or if I should feel grateful. It is true, I never became a professional basketball player. Even if I had never had the conversation with my teacher, chances are that I never would have. So perhaps my teacher did me a favor? Perhaps he helped me understand that it is important to have a second or a third option?

But, then again.

In the first few pages of his book, Shoe Dog, Phil Knight, the founder of Nike remembers back to the time he had his “Crazy Idea.”

“I thought, just maybe, I need to take one more look at my Crazy Idea. Maybe my Crazy idea just might…work?


“No, no, I thought…It will work. By God I’ll make it work. No maybes about it.

“So at that moment in 1962 I told myself: Let everyone else call your idea crazy…just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where ‘there’ is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.”

Now as a parent, my children have dreams and goals. They see no limits. They know no boundaries. Or at least that is what I try to instill in them every single day. They are bright. They are smart. They work hard. They truly and unequivocally can do, or can become anything they can dream of. No dreams are too big. No goals are too high. No ideas too crazy.

Yes, a small part of me died 35 years ago. But today it burns brightly again within me as I see, and understand, and envision all that my children CAN and WILL accomplish in their lives.

Author: savagestrong

Husband. Father. Entrepreneur. Business owner. Communicator. Leader.

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