The trouble with telling an impressionable young soul that someday they “can be anything” in the way that books and movies and teachers and parents like to do in our modern society is simple: if you tell a lie enough times it starts to feel like a truth. And this is very dangerous. For a young child, the warm and fuzzy approach works. This sort of engendered confidence that comes from all sides can form a pretty capable shield against all the bullies and naysayers and little failures of being small. But, after the growing up part is mostly done, what happens? What happens when the shield becomes a crutch?
In case you can’t tell from my earnest, ruddy-cheeked face, I was told as a child that I could be anything I wanted to be. Most of us lucky ones were. There is no doubt that I appreciate my family and teachers for the love that they gave and the good vibes they sent my way. I got a lot of gold stars, Great Work!s, and approval. And, despite the fact that my mandatory third grade list of “Things I Want to Be When I Grow Up” included such doozies as: Singer (nope), Actress (nope), Teacher (nope), Writer (eh), Dancer (hell nope), I eventually grew up and learned my limitations. Being an awkward, unattractive teen certainly helped to ground me. Eventually, with enough time and patience, I turned out, as they say, “all right.”
But nevertheless, I still struggle to find a balance. I waffle back and forth between thinking I’m lowly two-bit scum to believing that the board game Life was totally right and I am going to write the next great American novel or invent a better mousetrap. Nowadays, praise often elicits an, “Aw shucks, you’re just saying that. No, really, are you just saying that?” I tell my mother about my anxieties less and less as I grow older because I know she’ll knock my brain off-kilter by telling me I’m a “superstar” and that she knows I can do “whatever I put my mind to.” She never really understood my graduate school experience; the terrors of stringing words together in class in order to not sound like a complete nimrod, the half-hearted energy I put into most writing assignments because I was afraid of doing my best and failing, the way I felt like an amateur in everything and an expert at nothing.
A healthy post-grad mindset can be even trickier to maintain. After all, outside of school and grades and check-plus-pluses, there are fewer measures of success for us 20-somethings. Even money, the gold star of adulthood, acts as an uneven scale. My personal passions, in fact, don’t offer much more than an Ikea-style salary even if I reach the pinnacle of excellence. Champagne and faux-caviar are probably not in my future. So how, then, do I actually know if I’m good at this stuff? Does anyone ever know? And do people ever stop telling us what great heights we can achieve?
When I was an undergrad, I took an art history class over the summer before my senior year. I had taken art and art history classes before and done fairly well at them, but I was just taking this particular class for kicks and credits. As the only non-major in a small classroom, the professor paid special attention to me. It was definitely a little tricky to catch up on some of the basics I had missed and figure out how to memorize hundreds of slides, but I seemed to be managing. When our midterm came around, one of the questions asked us to write about a work of art we viewed in person. I wrote on Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as a Lute Player. I don’t remember much of what I said, but I do recall that the professor loved it. In the hallway after getting the tests back, I flipped open the blue book to find my grade: an A. At the end of her long comments the professor had written, “Maybe you are an art historian?”
“Maybe,” I thought. “Maybe I am an art historian!” I almost had an epiphany right there on the third floor of the humanities building.
Most likely, the professor was entirely sincere and just meant to compliment me. She probably never thought I would actually consider it. Still, should we be told we can be something based on one encounter? Should we be told they are something, just because they did well at it one time? Or just because they like it? Yes, I wrote the heck out of that essay, but probably only because I really loved that particular painting. I loved it so much that I had somehow committed it to memory to the point of describing even the reddish-pink color of the lute player’s knuckles. Could I have done so well all the time, for the rest of my life? Who knows. I put that little nugget away in my head and never took another art history course.
Some of us need a little more push. Less coddling, more gritty truths. I’m not arguing that children should be told they probably can’t be train conductors, astronauts, or zebras. There is no need to quash vibrant imaginations in their prime with the oratorical equivalent of a dream bitch-slap only us bitter adults are capable of. Perhaps, though, when we are old enough, when it starts to really count, we might deserve a little bit of meanness. Or at the very least, not so much glowing praise. Especially if that’s what it takes to make us feel a little less lost later on.
Finding your way out of the fog of undeserved adulation is tricky, but it helps if you realize a few things. First, people who love you can’t see all of your faults all of the time, but don’t blame them too much for it and don’t be jerks to them. Second, there are probably enough other people out there to bring you back down to earth in the worst ways, so keep the good people nearby just in case. Third, maybe you can’t be anything, but you will be something. Everybody has got to be something. The hardest part is figuring out what that is. But the good news is, you’ve got time.