It seems that the most frequent question I’m forced to answer these days is “what are you going to be when you grow up?”, or some variety of this. If someone isn’t directly mouthing these words to me, I see unwelcome reminders of the question and general concept in everyday life; in sloppily pasted ads for Monster.com on the walls of abused bus stops, and in the wide-eyed confessions of small toddlers regarding their dream metier to their knowledgeable and wise adult guardians who are occupying these bus stops. These salutes to future-orientation dance around and taunt my being, and it doesn’t help that I’m at an age that this question should not only be expected, but welcomed optimistically and wholeheartedly, as if it should be my greatest fear to let the questioner down with an unremarkable, unrealistic, or unambitious answer.

It’s a famed inquiry, to be sure, that invites innumerable ideas and thoughts and worries that far eclipse its simple ten-word composition. We’ve grown comfortable with the idea that kids are kids, but one day we all ‘grow up’ and adopt a substantial, wholesome, and respectable profession like a fireman, a nurse, or a knife salesman. Children ponder this question, college students worry about making it a reality, and the elder generation might spend their days content with their professional choices or, more unfortunately, heavy with resentment or regret about opportunities gone un-seized.  We’ve turned life into a formula, believing that if we don’t fit the formula we won’t come up with the right answer.

As a child, I commonly cited that I wanted to be a diver when I grew up. But who to work for and what to do within in the realm of diving were unknowns to me, as there are a vast number of professional opportunities in the grander scope of ocean exploration. I didn’t know and I didn’t care what I’d be doing, just as long as I’d be underwater, uncovering subaquatic landscapes that, up until that point, I would only get to swim through in my dreams.

But I gave up on that dream – a practice that knows well the conditions of adulthood – and I forgot about it. Or rather, this whole abandonment was the result of the common and often lethal clash of dreams and reality. I illuminated my father about my future profession, and he said: “what would you do if you found a dead body?”. Aghast, the eyes of this blonde little six-year old with gap teeth who habitually cut her own hair grew to the size of teacup saucers as the idea slowly permeated her storybook of a brain. “What if I found a dead body”, I thought. The idea was terrifying to my then-delicate constitution. So as quickly as I had adopted the aspiration to be an oceanic diver, I just as quickly abandoned it, and dejectedly trudged off to find my new calling.

Soon after, I assumed the innocent hobby of thumbing through old National Geographics from the seventies and eighties. I turned to the underwater world after deciding that the world in which I lived was not nice on the surface, but it then became a world where carcasses pollute the deep blue sea, a strange planet with oceanic currents and a nasty sense of black humor that would make me collide with these carcasses. But these magazines showed me there was a world beyond my own, and that this world had the great potential to be a fantastic one. And as the native tribes of Borneo, Namibia, and Brazil abandoned their glossy-ink form and hopped into my ears where they found refuge in my brain, my curiosity and imagination grew and grew until I mused: “what else is out there?”. And from then on, I wanted to work for National Geographic and their motto, “inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888” became my own.

This was years ago, and no idea regarding Nat Geo and their endeavors is toxic enough for me to shake the idea completely. I heard that the hours, for any position, are long and the pay is meager. If the work is worthwhile and rewarding, this isn’t a problem. I also heard that Nat Geo photographers started bringing along iPhones and iPads to replace heavy and expensive equipment. I don’t really believe this because you can’t come up with photos like they do with an iPad, but it was discouraging to hear. The confirmation of this accusation has yet to be seen, and the Nat Geo dream lives on to see another day.

“What kind of profession are you looking for?”, a mysterious woman in a navy pantsuit repeats to me, rudely interrupting my previous thought-tangent. This is a more grown-up version of the initial question. I prefer it, to be honest, because it dispels the notion that what you end up doing is who you are, as if all other aspects of a person cease to exist outside of their occupation. This version of the question also discounts the hazy concept of “growing up”. Some of the political discourse going on right now just further supports my claim that maturity and age are completely unrelated, and it does mature youth and immature ‘adults’ a huge disservice to correlate the two. I secretly thank the woman in the navy pantsuit for presenting me with a version of this timeless question that is less intimidating, less absolute, and less whimsical.

In any case, I’ve decided to address this crisis by not addressing it. Should an opportunity arise that I greatly desire, I promised myself I would seize it. And if it doesn’t arise soon, I promised myself I would make my own luck. I’m not a planner. Day-to-day, on trips, and in life,  I mostly just do what I want and then adjust accordingly along the way. People are fond of the cliche, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans”, and this is completely true. Happiness can’t be contained in an itinerary, and anyone who tries will likely meet unwanted delays of the philosophical sort.

What’s more, people change, not always in the way we want, but not all have the courage to apply this fluidity to their job. Reality has a knack of making itself known. There is value in achieving financial security, and the idealistic advice “do what you love” is most certainly easier said than done. Chasing dreams is not for the meek. I once asked a guy aged no less than 65 what he does. I was sitting in a very ugly cement park in Irkutsk and he was feeding pigeons, casually scattering bird seed within a two meter radius. He said with a twinkle in his eye: “You probably mean ‘what do you want to be when you grow up'”. He was a Russian, and such playfulness with a serious question was the last thing I expected. He said: “I want to be a cosmonaut. I want to be among the stars, like the great Yuri Gagarin.”  I said: “what are you waiting for?”, to which he replied: “someone needs to feed the pigeons.”