As I was working there was a lady in the waiting room who had her young daughter with her. The daughter was probably around 3 or 4 years old. They were reading books and talking. The little girl was asking all kinds of questions like little kids do. The mom was very patient with answering the questions and explaining things to her daughter. I was commending the mom, in my head, for taking the time and having the patience to do this. A lot of parents put their kids in front of a tablet while they play on their phone. So this was definitely a welcomed interaction between mother and daughter.
Then mom said one of the things that drives me crazy. People hate it when I express how much I don’t like this saying, but I can’t help it. I try to keep things as real as possible. I’m a pretty straightforward person and my friends and family understand that. I’ve said no when asked if something looks good. I’ve disagreed when someone is trying to convince me something is really cool. I don’t just play along because it’s polite in most cases. We all have to bite the bullet here and there. There’s times and places for everything. Like in this instance. I didn’t say a word even though it was incredibly difficult for me to keep my mouth shut. Mom looked at her daughter and said, “You can be anything you want to be.”
EEEEESSHHHH! It made my skin crawl. I know, I know. It’s cute. We should be encouraging children that they can be anything they want to be, right? In my head all I could think was, “Can she?”. Can she really be anything she wants to be. Because I don’t think that’s true for myriad of reasons. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to discourage children, or anyone, from chasing their dreams. I just want them to be able to think outside the box and not become completely reliant on that dream. I’ve been told that kids, people, need to focus on their dreams otherwise they will never become a reality. That is true to a point. But we all have to be ready for the unexpected. You can have the most perfectly laid out plan, but if something goes drastically, unexpectedly, wrong then that best laid out plan will be nothing but an unattainable dream.
Let’s look at this from a few different perspectives. Let’s first look at it from what I consider a ridiculous approach. Mom just said the little girl can be anything she wants because mom has dreams of that girl being a doctor, or lawyer, a business professional, or maybe a politician. She’s not sitting there thinking, “Gosh, I hope this girl grows up to be a Walgreens check out girl.” When a lot of parents say those words it’s because they have a vision for what they want their child to be. What if that girl grows up and she just loves the fact that she is living with 3 of her best friends and she’s making rent every month working at Sephora? Is that what mom meant? The girl is happy. That should be all that counts. And for some parents, it is good enough that their child is happy. What if that little girl absolutely loves being an exotic dancer? Now she’s probably getting ridiculed by some of the general public and her family. Does that make mom proud? She said she could be whatever she wanted. I’ve actually known a couple exotic dancers that really did love doing that job. They’ve since moved on to different professions and a different time of their life, but is that what was expected of them when they were a child? Does that fall under the “whatever you want to be” umbrella?
Now let’s break down the phrase “you can be whatever you want to be”. We would all like to believe that with hard work and determination we can become whatever we aspire to be. In a lot of cases, that’s not entirely true. If someone really wants to be an astronaut, and many have, but they fail the physical, mental, or cognitive tests that go along with it they’re not going to be an astronaut. Maybe that individual worked and studied extremely hard and they still fell short. Mom’s promise didn’t quite work out there, did it? What if the child has been told their whole life that they can be whatever they want to be but was never taught how to work for that goal? If an individual wants to be a hedge fund manager because he heard he can make tons of money, but he just sits in the basement and plays video games all day, chances are he’s not going to have to skills to become a hedge fund manager when he arises out of the depths of the basement to face the real world. Some people, like me, just don’t have the mental capacity. I could never be an Astrophysicist. No matter how hard I try, no matter how much I study, no matter how much help I have, I just don’t have that capability hard wired in my brain. And that’s ok. I knew this a long time ago when I struggled heavily with basic algebra.
Just because we can’t be whatever we want to be doesn’t mean we have to settle for any less of a life. I volunteered at my local middle school for years. Primarily dealing with 7th and 8th graders. You wouldn’t believe how many future professional athletes are among us. Of course, being the warm and fuzzy creature I am, I stomped on that dream immediately. I talked to them about the fact that less than 1% of kids playing sports today will actually go on to become a professional athlete. I did encourage them to work as hard as they possibly could to become a professional athlete, but to have a backup plan. Just in case it doesn’t work out. Give that dream of being a pro your best effort, but please have something to fall back on. That was what the message would end up being after talking about it for a while. One girl wanted to be a linebacker in the NFL. That’s her goal. Ok, in 7th grade at 5’5″ and 135 lbs there’s definitely a lot of work to be done. I told her to give it her all, do the best she can to make it happen, but make sure that you go to college for a degree that’s actually usable. Maybe she won’t be that football player she wants to be, but maybe she’ll be the next Erin Andrews – only with talent. Maybe she’ll be the next big MMA fighter. It’s not football, but it’s still a pro athlete.
Honestly, though, I’m not saying it’s ridiculous to dream. Having dreams is one of the healthiest thing people of all ages can do. Don’t allow a child to dream without direction. Don’t go all in on a dream without having some sort of plan for falling short of your dream. How’s that saying go? Reach for the moon because even if you fall short you’ll still be among the stars. It’s literally telling you to have a back up plan. I shouldn’t have picked on that young mother in my head so much when I heard her say what she said. Maybe she is going to be the most supportive parent to help her child attain the goals she sets. I would want nothing more for them both. I think I’m more upset at the fact that it’s such a cliche. Overused, under delivered. So many things these days are that way. We’re seeing too many Art History degrees and not enough people actually learning skills to navigate them through life no matter what comes their way. Through failure comes some of the greatest successes. I want to see our future generations grow up with the understanding that failure is ok, it’s normal, and you can move on to greater things. Just because you didn’t become what you wanted to be doesn’t mean that you have to be nothing. You can still be a productive member of society and even love what you do. After all, I wanted to be a psychologist, but I own an auto repair shop instead. Life happens. All we can do is roll with it.