In his April 1 article in the New York Times, “Stop Asking Kids What They Want To Be When They Grow Up,” organizational psychologist Adam Grant argues that it’s better not to ask children to frame ideas about their futures in terms of work. For example, rather than idealize becoming an astronaut, children are better off focusing on becoming “a person of integrity.” I like Grant’s argument a lot, and not just because it’s easier, I think, to become a person of integrity than it is an astronaut.

Grant’s article reminded me of a project I did with high school juniors for many years. The “Green Light” project was inspired by The Great Gatsby and involved students identifying and then creating a physical representation of the thing that most motivated them. In Fitzgerald’s novel, the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock symbolizes not Daisy, another tangible thing, but Jay Gatsby’s variable aspirations – love, status, influence, even goodness.

So many times during this project, students asked me if they could use their first choice college or their hoped-for career as their green light. I did my best to steer them away from anything so specific, teaching the lesson again and again that the green light is a concrete object, representative of something abstract. “The green light can’t represent the green light, can it?” I said, knowing that I was frustrating my students to a degree. From their perspective, teachers and parents have created a world where college and professional work are expected and idealized. Why, then, shouldn’t the green light be representative of one or both?

Still, I agree with Grant, who says that “aspirations should be bigger than work. Asking kids what they want to be leads them to claim a career identity they might never want to earn. Instead, invite them to think about what kind of person they want to be — and about all the different things they might want to do.”

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Jessica is a doctoral candidate, education consultant, writer and editor. She is the founder of bookclique, a collaborative of English teachers and students working to promote book culture, and a co-founder of Well-Schooled, the site for educator storytelling, dedicated to sharing first-person educator stories. All Rights Reserved - What I Learned Today in School.