What do you want to be when you grow up?

Wait, don't answer that. It's a trick question. In fact, it might be the trickiest question there is, at least if you want to be happy. (Yet adults ask kids that all the time.)

Instead, it turns out there's another, much better question to ask--and a much smarter one to teach kids to ask themselves. 

Don't ask: "What do you want to be?"

Instead, ask: "What do you want to do?"

Subtle, right? But swapping out those two-letter words makes a huge difference.

Life-changing magic

I've been reading Marie Kondo's book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which basically teaches you to discard anything in your life that doesn't bring joy. (So far, I'm six big garbage bags into its implementation at my house--more on this in a future column). 

For now, let's focus on a very insightful passage near the end:

Think back to your own school days and the things you enjoyed doing. Perhaps you were responsible for feeding the pets or maybe you liked drawing pictures.

Whatever it was, the chances are that it is related in some way to something you are doing now, as a natural part of your life, even if you are not doing it in the same way. At their core, the things we really like do not change over time.

Happiness therefore comes from the things we do, not the statuses we attain. So here's what that means for your kids--or even for you.

They'll know themselves better.

Asking "what do you want to do" requires you to figure out who you really are.

Focusing on what you want to be, on the other hand--a teacher, or a doctor, or a football player, for example--tells you much less. That makes it much easier to wind up confusing what you want to do with what other people want you to do. 

They'll control their labels.

It's too easy to reply to the "be" question" with a job title or an occupation, without truly understanding how those people spend their time. Answering the "do" question requires you to abandon labels, and just get at the core activities.

Ask the state bar association who I am for example, and they'll tell you I'm a lawyer--even though I haven't actually practiced law in a decade. Ask them what I do with my days however, and they won't have a clue.

They'll find obvious but hidden truths.

In her book, Kondo describes herself as having been flat-out obsessed with organizing and cleaning, even as a very young child. However, if you asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she'd only say that she wanted to get married someday.

It never occurred to her that she could make a career out of the thing she loved doing most--tidying--until after she already had a waiting list of clients and even a couple of bestselling books under her belt. 

They'll thrive in a changing world.

Who do you think turned out to be happier and more successful--the young man who 20 years ago decided he absolutely wanted to be a newspaper reporter, or the young woman who decided she wanted to write?

Focusing on how she wanted to spend her days, rather than the title or even the industry, makes it more likely she's been able to adapt, and therefore become successful and happy.