I’ve been doing a little coaching for close friends this year. They’re stuck at a crossroads in their life, or even at a dead end. They have no idea what to do next, or even what they want.

I do a “listening exercise” for them. I learned it from Deborah Kruger, and I’ve written about her workshops before here, here and here.

Here’s a trick I’ve learned. When people are really stuck about what they want to do with their lives, there’s a simple little question that helps unlock the log jam of “shoulda/woulda/coulda”.

“When you were in first grade,” I ask them, “what did you want to be when you grew up?”

Sometimes people swear they can’t remember. Or they laugh it off, because the answer seems so ridiculous.

I just poke at them harder til they come up with something. And they almost always get to a point where they pause, and think, and say, very slowly, “Well, this is really silly, but when I was really young, I really wanted to be a….”

Listen closely to the answer. Because it’s really important.

I’ve never met a kid, a very young kid, who didn’t have some dream of who and what they wanted to be when they grew up. It is the ultimate fantasy, the first dream.

And in it lies the seeds of what you could become today.

Look beneath the “title” of what you wanted to be, and think about why you wanted to do that.

We had those desires when we were young. But we don’t know enough about the world to interpret where those desires could fit in. So we look around and grab a name, an occupation that fits our desires.

Later, when we’re older, we remember the name of the thing. But we forget the feelings, the desires that brought us to that thing. That’s when it starts to seem silly, or unattainable. And that’s when we first let go of our dreams.

For example, lots of boys want to be firemen, or policemen. And obviously, not all of them become one. But that desire to protect and serve, coupled with action and physical activity, may still be part of their dream job. Or keeping people safe. Or solving crimes, or puzzles. Or gosh, maybe something as simple as wearing a uniform.

A desire to be a ballerina may mean you want to be in the limelight and wear fluffy tutus. But it could also mean that you were happiest when you were dancing. Or practicing your craft. Or performing it. Or simply moving. Or maybe it was interpreting the music. Or teaching the other kids a cool move. Maybe it was the pageantry, the costumes, the stage sets.

And it may be time to put some rigorous movement, or music, or coaching, or performance back in your life. (Or go buy a tutu, what the heck? Some dreams are cheap to fulfil.)

I think this exercise is insightful because our desires can be so pure and simple when we are so young. (I don’t mean “pure” in the altruistic sense, I mean in the the undiluted sense.) There is no fear or self-doubt overlaid, no real world sensibility intruding. No one is telling you at age five “You can’t be an artist, you’ll starve to death!”

The trick is to look underneath the job title and think about what intrigued you.

Did you want to make things? Maybe you want to be an artist or craftsperson. Did you love to hammer? A carpenter. Did you like to draw? Illustrator, architect, graphic designer. Break things? Demolition!

If you wanted to be a skater, maybe you wanted to skate. But maybe you just wanted to go fast. Or be outdoors. Or you wanted to feel everything about winter, including a cold crisp wind on your face.

Whatever made your heart sing, try to figure out how to go there again, even for a little while. It may not be your dream job, but it’s a thread you can pick up and follow there.

Me? What did I want to be when I grew up?

An artist, of course! Interestingly, I drew a lot, and I don’t like to draw now. But…I never drew anything I could see. I didn’t want to draw landscapes or houses, for example. I was always drawing imagined images. Especially…animals. I absolutely loved drawing animals. Especially…horses. I yearned for more animals in my life, too, especially horses.

I also collected things. Anything. Pretty stones, shells, bits of interesting lichen. Ribbons, scraps pretty wrapping paper, pictures cut from magazines. My mother called it “trash”, but it was all treasure to me.

Later, when I had money, I loved scrounging thrift shops and junk stores. My favorite thing to do, hands down, is to browse through a really good antique store/second hand store. (The affordable ones, not the pricey ones!) I love finding odd little treasures, especially the things most people overlook–carpenter’s folding wooden measures, bits of funky jewelry, rusty metal things, game pieces. (I treasure the measuring tape that was wrapped around a steer, with calculations to estimate its weight.)

I loved archeology and fossils. I think I loved the notion of finding something really cool and old, and digging it up. And imagining what life was like when that particular thing was around. My favorite scene in the book Little House on the Prairie is when the girls visit an abandoned Indian campground and find all those glass beads. (Trade beads!!)

You’d think when the current collage/assemblage phase burgeoned, I’d be a happy collage artist. But I’m not. I can’t bear to cut up any of my treasures. Instead, I love arranging them into endless vignettes. And I’m very good at that, too.

Animals…artifacts…ancient treasures…vignettes. Oh, did I mention I wanted to be a writer, too?

Who knew that fifty years ago, the artist I am today was already awake and thriving in that five-year-old’s heart?!