You Can’t Be Anything You Want When You Grow Up

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. TC mark

image – NASA


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  • Rachael

    Gentileschi is the shit! Completely understandable you would remember that piece.
    (I’m an art history major. Job market isn’t great but not as bad as everyone makes it out to be.)

    • Justine G. (@FailboatSailor)

      As a degreed art historian as of 2009 – oh, it’s bad.

    • Justine G. (@FailboatSailor)

      The job market, not Gentileschi (just to clarify).

  • Laura

    I can’t stand people who post underneath stuff claiming “I so needed this, thank you”.

    But seriously, I so needed this, thank you.

    • Kate

      And I can’t stand the people who comment on those comments and say they agree, but, well, I just did. :)

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  • Theresa Watanabe

    A friend of mine was told by a drama teacher when he was young that he was ‘the next Hugh Grant’. He’s just wasted 5 years of his life in New York trying make a living being an actor. He’s mediocre at best…

    • michaelwg

      As Hugh Grant is mediocre at best, i’d say your friend nailed it.

      • Hailie

        Hahahahaha best comment ever.

  • Christina (@christinalefou)

    I was just talking about this to someone the other day. I can’t help but to think in-built American Dream optimism plays a part in this kind of ‘you can be anything!’ mythmaking, and the reality is that it needs to be tempered with some realism, because most teenagers I knew growing up were very clueless, sheltered, and idealistic as a result, including myself!

  • michaelwg

    I think it’s more about providing children with a wider range of options. “Sweetie, you can be an Astronaut OR a Crack-Whore”

    • Rachel Ramirez

      Absolutely. I would have rocked at crack whoring, but you have to start so young in that field.

    • S.Jones



  • Elisabetta (@CopperCurls)

    No problem on that with my mom. She was very quick to tell us we weren’t going to be something. I think she saw a drawing once and said you are not going to be an artist. Hahah.

  • Jk

    Someone has to be an astronaut or an Olympic champion. Everybody starts somewhere.

  • Notthatblamegameagain

    Adjusting to reality is noone’s job but yours. That is not news. Noone told you cause- its OBVIOUS!!!! Children grow up. Or in your case- they cling to the illusions of childhood with a vengeance that defies reason. None of you self pitying 20 somethings are as godlike as your teenage dreams. This is tragic? You were misled? I bet the ‘ grown ups’ tried to warn you and you just got offended and stormed off.

    Like right now- again.

  • Kenai Iman McFadden (@KenaiMcFadden)

    “the way I felt like an amateur in everything and an expert at nothing.”
    Damn, that’s relatable.

  • Billy

    “the good news is, you’ve got time.” Please define time. Why do I feel like time is seriously running out once you’re nearing thirty? Technically (or in theory), we do have time. But at the same time I have the feeling that this time is socially acceptable as long as it doesn’t take longer than thirty years of (human) age.

    • Rachel Ramirez

      I think thirty is still super young. I would never judge you for figuring things out still when you’re thirty+.

  • Grae

    Fuck that. I can be whatever I want to be, and I will cling to my “illusions” of childhood with a reason-defying vengeance. Anything less than what I honestly want to be is a disappointment.

  • David Schick

    I agree with GRAE.

    My mom was a Spanish teacher and like all mothers (and possibly teachers) she told me that I could be anything just as everyone’s parents do. However, she attached a requirement that “you have to have ganas” to achieve your dream (Ganas Spanish for desire).
    At the start of each one her classes in her 17 years of teaching, she showed a movie called “Stand and Deliver,” which is a really great movie about these underprivileged kids who go on to score exceptionally well on the advanced placement calculus exam. The underlying theme, their ganas to succeed.

    Perhaps the reason why you couldn’t be anything you wanted to be is because of your “half-hearted energy” you put into your dreams because you were “afraid of doing your best and failing.”
    This is a problem with motivation, not with childhood lies.

    On a separate note, the remark about “Writer(eh),” I also disagree with. I really enjoyed this piece, regardless of the fact that I disagree with it.
    I don’t think that the “I can be anything I want” dream every becomes a crutch. For me, it’s always the bar (and it constantly rises)… If I can’t reach it, I reach higher.

    Part of the other reason I disagree with this is because there are plenty of countless examples where someone became what they wanted to be, and in some cases, probably without ever hearing it from their parents.
    My perfect example… Eminem.

    I’m sure there are others that I could list after a quick Google search to back up this claim, but the bottom line is that people who become what they want to be when they grow up actually take the initiative to be what they want. And, once again without the Google search, I’m sure there’s a diverse selection of examples from all demographics.

    Being “something” just isn’t good enough. We, as human beings, want to be anything.
    There is no limit to human potential.

    So you go out there and be that singer, actress, teacher, writer, dancer, or art historian…
    As you said, “you’ve got time.”

    • Carlie

      David Schick, you are my favorite person today. I may actually print out your comment and post it up by my mirror, so I HAVE TO see it when I look at myself. I think your message is perfect. We CAN be anything we want to be, but it takes work. It won’t magically happen effortlessly. Anywho, thank you so much. I really needed to hear what you posted, and I’m not just saying that. I truly mean it.

      • David Schick

        You’re welcome.
        Happy that my words were of some help…

  • makeupandmirtazapine

    Well somebody has to play for Manchester United, star on Broadway, win America’s Next Top Model, write the Times bestseller, be the prima ballerina, etc… It’s not going to be anyone whose passion for it only lasts the length of time it takes to write one mid-term paper though.

  • wendymichelle

    I agree: You can’t be anything you want to be if you are only willing to offer half-hearted effort. And hiding your best efforts behind fear will ensure that nobody sees them or rewards you for them. No successful person goes through life without failure; these same people also started out as amateurs and then became experts. This is good writing, though I cannot agree with your opinions.

  • Roger

    I think a large part of the problem surrounding being told one can do anything is that the individual is not as frequently told “but you’ll have to work incredibly hard to get there.” What I, and therefore I can only assume many others, truly suffer from is the notion that the necessary skills to be whatever I want won’t come from nothing. Instant gratification is not an option, and this notion tends to scare our generation.

  • Tee

    I never understood how the “you can be anything you want” mentality could ever be seen as a bad thing. Honestly it just seems like that’s the on-trend go to excuse for people that are bitter that they’re working desk jobs instead of being an astronaut even though we all know that they made zero attempts to actually be an astronaut.

    Would it be more politically correct if you tagged “if you work hard enough” at the end? Is that really necessary? With the exception of talent based professions (e.g. you can’t be a singer if you can’t sing, nothing you can change about that) there’s no reason why a kid should think “I could never do that” about a profession. Someone has to lead the next big start-up or be the youngest billionaire engineer some damn flying cars already. Why can’t it be them?

    • Alannah

      This is everything I thought whilst reading this article but didn’t quite know how to say, so thanks :)

    • Rachel Ramirez

      Some good points here and from the above comments. You DO have to expect to work hard. Absolutely.

      But still, there are singers who CAN sing but will never be able to “make it” even if they work hard at it their whole lives. That’s kind of one of my motivations for writing this article, since as someone who dreams of making a living through writing someday, I have to realize that there’s a big possibility it won’t happen the way I want it to– whether or not I try my darnedest.

  • wendymichelle

    Careful…you are creating a self-fulfilling prophesy.

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