What do you want to be when you grow up?

In my presentations to both school and business audiences, I ask who is an artist and who is a scientist.

The idea of course is that my proposal is that to be creative we have to be both scientist and artist. We need to be able to embrace both logic and chaos, both critical and possibility thinking.

At a school recently I spoke to an audience of 14 year olds. I asked the question,’who here is a scientist’. Note this is after I have explained what a scientist is in simple terms – someone able to question, to make judgements, to experiment to search for the truth. Out of a group of sixty, five hands went up (two of those were teachers). I’d already warmed them up so I knew they were capable and confident in raising their arms to earlier questions.

Does that surprise you? Perhaps not. But the name of that school had as it’s suffix “school of science”. Science was its specialism and yet know one who attended it was a scientist? Why? My theory is that none of the pupils considered themselves ‘a scientist’ or ‘an artist’ or anything else because those are labels applied only to worthy adults. They hadn’t noticed that if you do science, you’re a scientist. If you do art, you’re an artist. Their version of the situation was that they are pupils. Boring, unimportant, useless and irrelevant pupils. Their job, their identity was to be a pupil. You might well say, what’s wrong with that? I feel it’s so limited and constraining that it’s dangerous.

Children adopt this label of nondescript ‘pupil’ as their identity. Then they reach 14 or 15 and are told to choose a route to a job. They used to call it ‘Which Way Now’ with a poster of some inane Radio1 DJ with his headphones on, as if he was some expert in career development. We ask them to choose another label. Do you want to be a doctor or a tv presenter? There probably were a few other rubbish choices. To be a doctor the pathway is fairly clear: you have to be good at everything and then go to medical school. Almost every other profession is less clear. How do I become an archeologist? How do I become a philosopher? Those ‘options’ weren’t on the poster. How do I become head of marketing for a major international corporation? No-one knows. The options are so limited. The reason they are even more limited is that the ‘chooser’ has to make such a leap from generic pupil to sophisticated label. There’s such an obvious chance hat the pupil says ‘forensic science sounds interesting, but I’m not that type of person. I don’t know anything about it.’ Of course they don’t have technical knowledge, but the attitude or ideals probably was there, at one point but was suppressed out by genericness.

I went to a large mechanical engineering exhibition when I was seven with my Dad whose company was exhibiting large machine tools. It was called MACH’78. On arrival you were given a name badge which had your name, occupation and company embossed it just like a credit card. How exciting to get my name on such a object! They asked me for my name and typed it into a computer. I was about to give my occupation and company name when they printed the card. Under my name it read: ‘Schoolboy’. I was incensed that my identity had been reduced to something so trivial, and short-lived (I saw my attendance at school as a temporary condition). Perhaps I hadn’t really got it clear in my head exactly what I would have put had they asked me but that’s not the point.

I was lucky. My imagination wasn’t dulled by such things. Perhaps a large group of children do still flourish in the same way. But from what I’ve seen at schools I’ve visited, we’re doing a big disservice to so many.

What do you want to be when you grow up? What an annoying patronising question.

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5 comments on “What do you want to be when you grow up?

  1. Bravo, Ayd! As I read this I am listening to the beautiful music being played downstairs on our housemate’s Steinway by my lovely daughter who has Asperger’s Disorder and who has “always” been a musician. Unlike our musician housemate, my daughter doesn’t read a note of music, but she has always thought in notes, and in colors. She has been able to play her own beautiful and instantaneous arrangement of anything she hears ever since–I don’t know when. I became aware of her special talent around age 7, the very first time she finally unplugged the headphones from my electronic keyboard, which she was always “pounding on” (or so I thought) saying, “Listen to this, Mommy,” and I was blown away, to say the least.

    To the school system my daughter is not a musician. She is a “special needs student” who isn’t able to learn the “right” way, but yet is very high functioning and intelligent. She doesn’t fit; they never knew quite what to do with her. A few years ago, after specifically asking for student volunteers, her 8th-grade teacher refused to let Cassie accompany the choir on a musical number for which she had heard the accompaniment many times over, and which she could play perfectly. My daughter is extremely shy in groups and never volunteered for anything…but THIS she knew she could do. She was even willing to try hard to overcome her fear of performing in front of other people in order to do it. She was told by her teacher that “playing by ear wasn’t REALLY knowing how to play the piano.” Soon after this, she began to not care about singing in the choir very much anymore.

    Cassie no longer attends, and never will again, attend a state school. I have had my run-arounds with them, my sincere pleadings impassioned pleadings, and out-right battles. I have seen my daughter mistreated, her self-esteem plummet, and finally, seen her all but give up on trying to earn her credits for high school. We are in the process of trying to get her up to speed to earn her US high school equivalency diploma (GED) by enrolling her in GED classes. A lot of atypical students end up there. It still won’t be easy for her. I am having a fight with the school system all over again. They have to agree to “release” my daughter from school attendance in order for her to pursue this other completely legal option. They are more concerned over the tax funds they are/will not be receiving because she has exited the system, than they are about her success or potential.

    Please keep fighting to change things. My daughter turns 18 late this year, and my son (who was a ‘genius’ straight-A student and bored to TEARS in school and not allowed to work ahead of ‘the group’) graduated several years ago. I am just glad my kids are both out of it now. I cannot lie. But there are so many who are just beginning and still coming up. I feel that the schools failed both my “gifted” and my “special needs” students equally. They never saw who either of them really are. They were just two in a sea of pupils.


  2. Pingback: Creative confidence – totally lacking in today’s schools? « Ding!

  3. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

    It’s a question that at best sets young minds up to believe that ‘growing up’ ends up being more about ‘what you are’.

    Even your own website header Ayd (www.aydinstone.com) labels or ‘brands’ you by what you are . . . “Branding and Design Expert’. Whereas when you introduce yourself you’re more likely to say, “I’m an expert in branding and design who shows students and business people how to unlock their creativity”. It’s what you do that is more important, is it not?

    I reckon we can do some things a scientist can do and some things an artist can do without needing to stick a label on our foreheads that we are one or the other.

    Love your style of thinking Ayd and can’t wait to interview you for my program, Interviews with Experts.


  4. By the first paragraph, I was thinking of my son. At almost 12, he is definitely both a scientist and an artist. And he actually wants to be some sort of electrical engineer when he grows up. He solves problems and makes things beautiful, and I’m glad I’ve never told him he’s just a school boy. (I home school.)


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