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?!

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.

8 thoughts on “WHEN I GROW UP”

  1. First, I read you all the time & enjoy all your insight & dead-on writtings. This time I just have to comment , cause I Just had this conversation with my daughter ….and pretty much told her the same thing .
    After I watched a documentary , called “Seven Plus Seven”, and the 4 or 5 dvd’s after that –a couple years ago, I was amazed to discover how true it was . Mainly , they documented these childrens lives from the 60’s (and its still on going )…every seven years …and the gist of it is “show me the 7 year old and I’ll show you the man”. And you could actually see that the grown adult was still basically the 7 seven year old child . Anyways, I find this true in my own life too, I was the child that wanted to be an Artist and ballerina……and have always dabbled in that direction, but the last 7 years have actually worked as an artist/crafter ,making a living …..(oh, and I do aerobic dance —for about 30 years nows), I think the dance is mostly , for me, about getting the techniques
    just right , controling the move ….
    Thanks for another great blog . oh, and I did ask my daughter that question …and she responded , “Well, I did always want to do …” and I’m sure someday she will. I think everything we do now, leads us to that goal. I was 46 ,before I got to live my dream (though sometimes it feels like a dream-mare:)). Thank you , I appreciate your effort here & look for you daily .


  2. I’m another lurker at your blog who wanted to comment on this post…I admire your writing and love your art work and you are so right on with this one.
    I drew constantly as a child/teen/early adult but I also loved to “make things”…my favorite drawer at my grandparent’s house was the junk drawer with the nails and corks and other bits and pieces that they kept, “just in case”…
    I also liked being outdoors and, as I got older, sharing what I did with other like minded kids.
    Now I find my bead/fiber art fulfills the maker in me, the digital photography gets me outdoors and, quite recently, I’ve found that I just love teaching beadwork, especially to folks who are new to it.
    It’s all come together in the end for me and I just love it!
    Talent is a gift but persistence is often what makes achievement possible.


  3. My most burning desire as a five year old was to be a cake decorator. My mother laughed when I told her that I was not going to make bread, or man the cash register. It was cake decorating or nothing for me! A local bakery would make a new sample wedding cake to put in the window every month. Of course, I was devastated to find out that it was actually cardboard with frosting on it, but nevertheless, I looked every time we drove down that street. I didn’t know about metal work yet, but I think I had three-dimensional artist written all over me.

    Jewelers tend to look at the bottom of pieces as soon as they pick them up. It’s a dead giveaway that someone is a jeweler. Well, when I was five, I had this habit of insisting at looking at the bottom of every pair of shoes before leaving the store. It’s the same interest in seeing what the maker/ designer did to resolve the part of the object that most would not see. Drove my mother nuts.

    I have had to learn to man the cash register, and I actually know a professional cake decorator, but I always pay attention to the details on the bottom.


  4. this is a great post, Luann. Someone very close to me is going through a major midlife slump and I’ve been wondering how to help without being parental. As I read through, all my childhood dreams came back and you’re right. If we’re happy, it’s likely we’re fulfilling those dreams. I wanted to be Gene Kelly in “An American in Paris”…I wonder if that’s why I always wore striped Tee shirts as a kid? I mean always.
    I also wanted to be a perfumer…no kidding. I would collect flowers, grasses and weeds with my eyes closed to put them together by scent. I was little. My mother would laugh and start to pick out the weeds. But I would tell her to stop and smell them. Cute, huh?
    Anyway, I’m reminded that it was just a year ago that I found your blog and have been enjoying it since. So Happy Anniversary, Merry Christmas to you and yours, feel better and have a wonderful – healthy new year!


  5. I’m so touched by your stories, and excited that you are sharing them here!

    Bobbi, you’ve certainly gotten all your childhood “hooks” covered.

    Natasha, I laughed when I read your post. Knitters look at the reverse side of handknitted garments to see how the maker finished off. I agree, it’s telling how someone handles the parts that most people think “wouldn’t matter”. That’s the “craft” in the art we make.

    Loretta, I hope this post helps you help your friend. Deborah Kruger always said the answers we need are already inside us. It takes a good LISTENER (not TELLER) to bring them out. And I love the perfumer story!

    Perhaps those we find intriguing because of their good energy and creativity may simply be people who have connected deeply with their childhood passions–no matter how long it takes them to find them.


  6. Luann,

    My son, at the tender age of 19, is struggling with what he wants to BE. I tell him I’m still defining myself in my mid 50’s. I have never been afraid to try something new and remain unflappable today. I love your posts because they always speak so personally to us all. I always think, “how does she KNOW what is going on inside my head?” I still don’t know, but I think you need to add psychologist to your bio!

    Merry Christmas!



  7. I know what’s going on in your head because mine is still buzzing 24/7. I have time to cover almost EVERYONE’s thoughts these days, and still have time to worry about something as trivial as whether my cockatiels are truly happy, and why can’t I remember the ending of that movie we saw last week and does that indicate early Alzheimers….
    Seriously, I’m absolutely thrilled if my rantings have helped someone else get through their day without tearing out too much hair. Thanks for letting me know!


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