What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John P. Hartigan III
  • 310th Airlift Squadron commander
As a young smart aleck, when people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my favorite response was, "A firetruck." I enjoyed the reactions I would get from that answer. Despite that joking response, I recognized the importance of the question and how much the answer could influence the direction of my life. Periodically, I think we all ask ourselves what we want to be when we grow up as we progress through different stages of our lives and careers. I have come to realize that my answer to this question has fundamentally shifted.

When I was younger, I always looked at the answer to that question as a profession, believing that it was a profession that would define me. I could grow up to be a policeman, a fireman, an engineer, etc. I decided on an Air Force officer. That decision started me down a path that led me to the United States Air Force Academy. Approaching graduation from the Academy, I realized I was going to have to get more specific, and choose among the subset options within the Air Force; at this juncture, I decided on being a pilot. After that decision, I didn't think I would ever have to re-address the question again. And that was correct for quite a while, as the next 10 years of my career were fairly well scripted.

It was as a major that I started to re-evaluate my answer, since most pilots don't fly for their entire career. I attended Intermediate Developmental Education at the Naval Postgraduate School and was slated to head to a staff assignment after graduation. My vector was to one of the joint staff positions. Trying to rank order my preferences, I realized every one of the potential positions had its positives and negatives. It didn't matter where my wife and I went or what position I was in, we were going to enjoy the assignment and I was going to do my best in the job.

I came to the exact same conclusion when I put in my application for command. Even though I had no control over where I would command, people would ask what my top choice would be. There were different advantages to any of the potential command opportunities. I realized again that I would do my best no matter where I was assigned and my wife and I were going to be happy regardless, since happiness is based on a personal choice and not a particular location or assignment.

These experiences have changed the way I now answer the question of what I want to be when I grow up. Although choosing a profession when I was young may have been important to give initial direction, it really had very little influence on who I am or how I define myself. I now think the best way to answer that question is with qualities that are independent of profession, career choices, or specific assignments.

So now what do I want to be when I grow up...useful and happy. No matter what the future holds--as long as I am both useful and happy--I will consider that a complete success.