Thursday, February 16, 2012

Soapbox Series #6 (or Reading, 'Riting, Ranting) -- "You Can Be Anything You Want to Be."

You know one thing that has always bugged me? Well, not always. It began bugging me when my kids were young and society started telling all kids, "You can be anything you want to be." Because---no, you can't.

It didn't bother me when I was a child myself, and my dad told me that. Yes, back in the day when girls were told they could be either teachers, nurses, or secretaries, provided they remained unmarried, my father actually told me I could be anything I wanted. At the time, I felt euphoric. But in the long run, bless Dad's well-meaning heart, it just wasn't helpful, and I say that as the holder of a business degree who has just about zero head for business.

It didn't matter that I entered college having never met the academic subject I couldn't master; in fact, that made it worse. I chose, and stuck to, a math major (my other degree), but otherwise I barreled around my school's academic offerings like the proverbial bull in a china shop. "Okay, should I maybe pair that with a biology minor? I like biology. Maybe I could teach... Hey, wait! Computer science. They say computers might be big someday... Naw, English! How obvious! But I'll have to read a string of boring classics... Hmm, okay, I'm at the end of my sophomore year, halfway done. Options are getting limited. Business. Huh, that should make me employable, and I've got time to add it as a major... What's that? They're starting an accounting major? That might be cool. But if I end up doing taxes the rest of my life I'll scream... My friend said, 'You can always work at a bank,' but I dunno... Maybe I could be a stockbroker!"

Nobody can be anything, because nobody is suited for anything, even if they like or want it for a time. More than being told we can be anything we want to be, we need to learn who we're meant to be and aim toward that. We need to figure out how to discern the good, the better, and the best. And to face that saying yes to the best may mean saying no to the good and the better, maybe just for now, or maybe forever. What we need to equip kids and ourselves with is a way to narrow down all the delights that beckon and decide which are for us and which are to be left to others. In short, we need to find our own particular calling and destiny.

If that's not writing (or science, or ministry, or stockbrokering), we either won't make it, or will feel unfulfilled when we do. If it is writing (or medicine, or fine arts, or mothering), we have no viable choice but to set aside the excuses and distractions, even the good ones, and do it.

22 comments:

Andrea Mack said...

Great post, Marcia! It took me a long time to find my way to where I wanted to be in my life (teaching and writing) and now that I'm here, I do appreciate the fact that I've found where I want to be and I try to make the most of it.

I'm about to start the process of helping my 16-yr-old start towards a path that might suit her -- and it's so hard.

Barbara Watson said...

Marcia, as teachers, my husband and I both struggle with "you can do anything" thing. Giving kids possibilities and hope is key, but filling them with false ideas is not. Finding that thing which makes you the you you were designed to be can take time. And like Andrea, my husband and I are working with our kids (both our own and those in our classes) to help them find their calling.

Dawn Malone said...

This is such a timely post for me. My son is a sophomore and is starting to think really hard about this very question. He has a natural curiosity about a great many things, is a high honor student, and wants to be something new each week! He has had so many different experiences as we try to help him find his passion. Yet what he loves now might not be what he loves in 3-5-10 years. A little worrisome for my husband and me, especially with the price of college these days. Luckily my daughter, who's a college freshman, has known she's wanted to be a teacher since kindergarten!

Marcia said...

Andrea -- I had to "circle back" to both teaching and writing. I committed to writing as a college senior, circling back from about age 8, and to teaching about 12 years ago, circling back from a late-teen/early-20s yen. Best wishes to you and your teen!

Barbara -- I'm glad to hear that teachers have their reservations about this as well. Yes, it's too easy to fill them with false ideas, and we have to locate that line. I love the idea that classroom teachers would work with their students as "whole people," even if the students' callings prove not to be in the teachers' subject matter.

Dawn -- That dreaming stage is so much fun. It can be hard to take the next step, because being "full of potential" is a comfortable place to stay. I do think it helps that changing careers during one's adult life is more common and more possible now than it once was. I'm also heartened by recent statistics on liberal arts graduates: the broad skills they gain are in demand by employers and they DO make more money over a lifetime than average. They're well positioned to change careers or to parlay their skills across different fields.

Mirka Breen said...

Thank you for shaking the nonsense out of this platitude. There are days I would like to rattle a whole bunch of these, the way people used to beat dust out of carpets.
I recall some sunny motivational speaker on a talk show, promising the audience she will show them how anything they wanted to be was really, truly, within their reach. An elderly lady raised her hand and said she always wanted to be the queen of England.

Vijaya said...

I love a cranky post like this. Truth is, when children are small, the possibilities are endless and I don't mind indulging their fantasies one bit -- garbageman one day, parking guy another day, astronaut ... you catch my drift. But as our children are growing older, they naturally define themselves by their interests and as they choose one path, many others become invalid.

In my own life though, I've pretty much said I'm going to do something and then done it ... even though others said, you can't do this, that or the other thing.

Marcia said...

Mirka -- That is hilarious about the woman who wanted to be queen. I once knew a young man who wanted to train as a truck driver. But at the time, anyway, a certain vision level was required, and he was legally blind in one eye. No dice.

Vijaya -- LOL at your first sentence. Yes, we can do things in spite of others saying we can't, but sometimes we also CAN'T do things in spite of others saying we CAN. Somewhere inside me is a frustrated career counseler, haha.

Faith E. Hough said...

I started reading this post expecting to enjoy ranting silently along with you and left being amazed at what a beautiful spin you put on this. I've always agreed that it is unfair to tell children they can be anything they want to be. I can't remember who said, "If you're six feet tall, you're never gonna be a jockey." :) And my very tall daughter will never be a professional ballerina, even though she says she wants to be one now. Even though I encourage her to develop her gifts and use them, some things simply won't be possible.
But it made me SO happy to read your wisdom about setting aside what you want to be for what you are meant to be. It's not just unfairness that makes certain things impossible--it's God's will, and it is a positive calling rather than a negative rejection.
Thank you so, so much for phrasing things properly.

inluvwithwords said...

I get giving kids hope, but I feel like too many kids are holding onto unrealistic hopes these days.
I had the opposite experience from you growing up. Every time I expressed a career interest, my parents would shoot it down. It wasn't a matter of ability (I was always an A student)After a while, I lost my ambition and decided against college altogether. (Which, I think, is what they were hoping for.) Thankfully, as an adult, I discovered my passion for writing and have been able to pursue it.

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

Amen to this post! There are a lot of things I could never be and shouldn't be. I always appreciated it that my mom told me, "You can still be a worthwhile person and not be good at math." It kept me sane through all those years of school. I excelled where I could and tried my best in the other stuff, but didn't feel like a total failure when I didn't master it all. I need to remember to pass this same message on to my kids.

I think the idea of "You can be anything" is also detrimental when it's paired with "You can be anything ... without working for it." This is what plagues a lot of teenagers in our society today, in my experience. They expect to graduate from high school and go on to college or a good job without doing an ounce of work. It's very bizarre.

Marcia said...

Faith -- Yes, for many pursuits, we can simply be born with the wrong physical characteristics. Unchangeable things, such as height. It may seem unfair, but it's actually a very helpful sign that God isn't leading that way. He WILL gift us for what he has in mind.

inluv -- I'm glad you were able to find your purpose as an adult. I think plenty of people can and do. Your story really helps point up that in guiding children, or ourselves, we have to avoid the extremes.

Amy -- I'm noticing this, too, and hearing it in a lot of places. The sense of entitlement that young people seem to have, that they will just step into something lucrative without having to work their way up. I wonder if this is related to the "every child gets a prize" for even showing up, a related trend I ran into when my kids were young that alarmed me.

Annie said...

This was a beautiful post, Marcia! I know so many people who are in their occupations for the wrong reasons! And I loved what Barbara said about giving kids hope and possibilities. My friend is a teacher in an impoverished area--her main goal each day is to convince them to stay in school!

Laura Pauling said...

I think there's a good balance of helping kids figure out what they're good at and where their interests lay. So much to consider.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Honestly, I never really thought about this bit of "wisdom" as being problematic - maybe because I have not been thinking of the 4 year old who wants to be a princess. But rather the same child when she is more well-formed and has already figured out that being princess isn't actually an option. We do have to explore options before finding our niche.

My favorite wisdom on this topic is the the Amplified Bible version of Proverbs 22:6. Train up a child in the way he should go (and in keeping with his individual gift or bent) and when he is old he will not depart from it.

Thanks for ranting a little here and inviting me to think differently about this cliche!

TC Avey said...

Nice meeting you. Thanks for coming to my blog-
I enjoyed your post...very applicable to my life. I have two college degrees that are completely unrelated. It has taken so long to finally find my true calling- "domestic artist". I am endeavoring to become a published author and trusting God to lead my way!

Jaye Robin Brown said...

My mother calls it the opportunity lost principle (which I think is economics) - by choosing one path, you say no to another. I think rather than telling children they can be anything they need to be told that to be "something" you must work at it. Dilligently.

Christina Farley said...

Did you just read my mind? I think you did. I agree! Of course, here I am trying to be a writer.. grin.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Fantastic post, Marcia! I kind of have the same feelings about everybody making the team or getting a part. It takes away from the ones who are willing to work hard for those positions.

We have to encourage our kids to be their best, which may not be the same as someone else's best. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is very important. You will not be a brain surgeon if you get weak in the knees when you see blood. You won't be a pro football player if you have one leg that is shorter than the other. You have to be realistic...

cleemckenzie said...

We do have our limits, whether they are because of ability or inclination. I totally agree. One thing I've always appreciated about the world I came into was that I had the opportunity to explore the possibilities and that there were many. I am forever grateful for that.

Marcia said...

Annie -- It always makes me sad when people hate their job, or when they know it's a compromise but feel stuck. I hope more teens will stay in school now, rather than find out ten years later that they should have, but I'm also glad education is "all ages" now.

Laura -- You've hit on such an important word: balance. When manufacturing was big, most kids in my hometown were "destined" to work in the mill. Most of them couldn't have become president no matter how hard they tried -- we've only had 44 of those, and only one at a time -- but with the right guidance they could have had tons of other options.

Joyce -- I love that version of that scripture, too! The parenthetical part is so revealing and enlightening.

TC -- I've come to realize that being able to meander a bit before we find our real selves is a blessing. It seems fairly common to writers, too, but my theory is that it's a symptom of being a generalist, and that generalists make good writers.

Jaye -- Yup, that's opportunity cost, and it's an important cost to count. I completely agree with your message: you can be something, but it will take hard work.

Christina -- It can be hard to want to be something when our ultimate success is up to the decisions of others. It's actually another reason we can't blithely say "You can be whatever you want to be." In most things, we need others to recommend, grant admission, purchase, and so forth.

Sharon -- Amen to your entire comment, especially the first paragraph.

Lee -- I do think we live in fortunate times, when there are opportunities to actually explore, when we don't have to choose or test into our schooling track at age 12, or be apprenticed out at 14or something.

Mary Witzl said...

YES. Another blogger wrote about this a while back and I agree wholeheartedly: in an effort to encourage young people, we come out with this nonsense, when it's so obviously false.

It took me ages to figure out what I wanted to be -- or rather, to decide on a career that I knew was best suited to my skills and interests. There were so many other things I wanted to do, but had no chance of succeeding in. I wish I'd caught on to this sooner.

Marcia said...

Mary -- What I find interesting is that it seems okay to pooh-pooh unwise moves long after the fact, but at the time the nonsense is going on, it's judgmental or intolerant, or just not PC, to do so. But there are SOME mistakes we could just not make, rather than letting them go on for ten or twenty years.