“You can be anything you want if you put your mind to it.”
“You can grow up to be an astronaut.”
“You could grow up to be president.”
“You could grow up to win a Nobel Prize.”
I think that there is a huge problem with the way that our culture talks to people, children in particular, about success. I think of it roughly as the, “If you really put your mind to it, you can grow up to be an astronaut”, problem. I think that the spirit in which people say, “You can grow up to be an astronaut”, is admirable — inspiring kids to reach for their dreams is a noble cause — but I think the implementation has some serious problems. Two serious problems in particular.
First, as with all, “You can do it if you really try”, messages, saying these types of things implies that if you don’t reach particular goals, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough. While it may be true that there are people who could have been astronauts if they just studied a little harder, that’s certainly not the case for everyone who ever wanted to be an astronaut and didn’t make it. Plenty of people who may have dreamed of being astronauts probably have mental or physical limitations that prevent it from being possible. Plenty of others were probably raised in contexts where they didn’t have access to an educational system sufficient to the task of preparing someone to pursue a career as an astronaut. Others still may have had the pursuit of that particular goal derailed by debt, traumatic life events, personal disasters, natural disasters, etc. The simple reality is that not everyone can be an astronaut, and it’s not just because everyone who doesn’t make it is lazy.
The second problem is that we don’t talk enough about how it’s okay to be an accountant – not just okay, but vital. We focus on telling people they can be the star of the show. The astronaut: the star of the show of human exploration and discovery; the president: the star of the show of government; the Nobel Prize winner: the star of the show of the pursuit of human knowledge. If the world’s a stage, then we spend our time telling our children that they can be the leading woman/man* on that stage. What we don’t say is that it is just as important, just as vital, and just as noble to be on tech. Without stage crew, no show would go on; without accountants, NASA wouldn’t have the money to send people to space. What we don’t spend enough time saying is that it’s the sides of the mountain that hold it up, not the top, and that is absolutely as vital to the ongoing progress of the human race that we have accountants as that we have astronauts.
We should tell kids that wanting to be a great astronaut is a worthwhile pursuit. We should also tell them that wanting to be a great accountant is a worthwhile pursuit, that wanting to be manager of the worlds finest run Best Buy is a worthwhile pursuit, that it’s not whether or not you play the leading role that matters, but whether or not you play whatever role you decide to pursue with competence and care. We shouldn’t tell them this just because some people can’t play the leading roles (though that would be a good enough reason), but because the seemingly mundane roles are just as vital to a successful production as the leading ones are. We should also tell them this because people should pursue whatever role they decide to pursue as a result of being inspired by the role, and not by the prestige associated with it.
I code for a business right now. I’m not going to space, I’m not saving the rain forests, I’m not leaping tall buildings in a single bound, and I’m not the only one I know who finds themselves disappointed by this type of reality. We were told we could and would all be superheroes when we got out of college, and against that promise, seen from that perspective, most of our lives don’t really measure up. For the most part, it’s a problem with the perspective, though, not with us. Most of the people I know who I’ve talked to about this kind of disappointment are incredibly competent at the things that they do. They are smart, responsible, diligent, and they do good work. So do I. No matter what profession we’re talking about, people who are diligent, responsible, and competent tend to be rare, and one more person who is diligent, responsible, and competent is, in any field, good for their field and for the world. While there are certainly still other goals that I would like to pursue, I consider it a failure of the society in which I was raised that I have such a hard time thinking of what I’m doing right now as contributing something of value to the world.
I work on a good team of people, I contribute good work, I communicate well, the team provides a useful service that makes it easier for businesses all around the world to operate, and we provide that service in a reliable, ethical way. Why I have so much trouble feeling good about that I have difficulty understanding, but I think one huge contributor is the fact that I was told I could be an astronaut thousands of times, and I was never, ever told, “You know what? It’s okay to be tech.”
*Is there a similar, but non-gender binary way of saying this? Leading role works, sort of, but it doesn’t really have the same rhetorical weight as leading woman/leading man feels like it has.