The other day, I was sitting at my preferred writing nook of choice, a little coffee shop with big windows and a theater across the street (a joke about clichés I can’t think of should be here). I was leaning back against my chair, staring out the window into the lights and herds of people making it to a 5:30 p.m. show.
They must have left work early for that.
I cycled through a dozen and one things I wanted to be when I “grew up.” “Writer” was in there once or twice, but not definitively. I didn’t pursue it immediately because I didn’t think I had enough raw talent to be a great writer, and that’s what we allude to when we encourage “big dreams.” Mediocrity, averageness, and normalcy have become interchangeable terms. None of them — even with their stability, median stats, or middle-of-the-road contentment — are anything to which we are encouraged to aspire.
Yet there I was, and still, here I am, doing that which I never thought I could — not because people told me to “dream big” or “become anything I wanted,” but because I ultimately learned to disregard other people’s ideas and expectations of greatness. I had to forfeit, initially at least, doing that which I thought would yield acclaim and monetary success and it was really only then that I realized that there’s nothing else I feel is worth doing.
The problem with teaching kids to “be anything they want” is that there is an undercurrent that suggests what they want needs to be abnormally precocious. They should strive for not just anything, but really, everything. Some could argue that encouraging people to be content with normalcy is encouraging people to settle. But this isn’t about discouraging dreams, this is about realizing that there are always more than a few dreams worth pursuing. We are curating a narrow ideal to replace a prior, narrower one. But one, universal American dream does not serve us.
If there’s one predominant criticism of the new generation — “millennials,” if you will — it’s that they’ve “lost sight” of what “matters” in life. Even one single word used to describe an untold amount of people in a certain age range is met with eye rolls and an association with indifference and laziness. But this generation is ushering in a culture that is, slowly, making it acceptable to pursue a life outside of a pre-determined ideal.
We see people not caring about cultivating a house into home, pursuing relationships for the sake of doing so, and spending time on interests that are only monetarily justifiable. These seemingly aimless pursuits aren’t about being lost. This isn’t being lazy. This isn’t being indifferent and whimsical and nonsensical. Those are words people use because the unknownness of a lifestyle outside of a previously decided acceptability is scary. The unknown always is. But that doesn’t mean it’s negative.
The generation before us proposed that the antidote to monotony was trying to make a spectacle of your life. This is where we get the “kids can be anything they want!” idea. In reality, it alludes to making things interesting, making yourself a phenomenon. It clearly doesn’t include acceptance of, literally, whatever they want to do. Raising kids this way isn’t an effective alternative. This only shifts us from one ideal to the next.
Happiness is how you process your experiences. It is not a matter of acquiring, it is a matter of perspective-shifting. So if there’s any perspective we have to shift, it’s that the “dream” should be anything other than cultivating a life that makes you happy not because it is externally validating. Because you’re doing what you want, not what someone else wants, which should ideally make you happy.
Failure isn’t having your life turn out “normally” because you weren’t ambitious enough, but because what you want isn’t what others would perceive as spectacular. Failure is relative to everyone. Failure is subjective. Failure is only as present in your life as you decide it is.
Introducing the idea that “all choices should be valid” into society leaves nothing for us to gauge our worth on anymore, so we ultimately meet disdain. In a world that is shifting from right vs. wrong to perspective vs. perspective, we have to find our footing wherever that may be. We get wrapped up in our egos, in our opinions, and start relaying them on other people, because that’s what we do have. Of course, this is counter-productive.
There is no right and wrong here. There’s realistic and unrealistic, tangible and esoteric, grounded and lofty, etc. But no one is better than another. Unrealistic dreams have been made reality, and grounded, modest ambitions have changed the world. And it is there, in that realm of possibility, that the generations that are and the generations that will be have begun to set their sights. There are those who are sound and content in their pre-prescribed normalcy, there are those who are only going to be settled when they’ve accomplished extraordinary, miraculous feats, there are those who are rushing to the theatre at 5:30 for a show, and those sitting across from there gazing over wondering whether or not working matters as much as living does. There is no right answer, and that’s the point.