What I Want to Be Versus What I Am

I was born in 1979, qualifying me for Generation X status. Growing up, we watched PBS shows like “Sesame Street”, “3-2-1 Contact”, “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”, and of course many cartoon shows like “Transformers”, “He-man”, and “ThunderCats”. One of the common themes in these shows was “You can be anything you want”. This was constantly reinforced in school, just when it was becoming en vogue that boys and girls could be brought up to have interest in the same sorts of careers. No longer were girls just nurses; they could be doctors. No longer were boys just lawyers or businessmen, they could be school teachers, counselors, or personal assistants; jobs usually set aside for women.

When you’re 10 and told the world can be yours, it’s a rather empowering feeling. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro was nominated the first female Vice Presidential candidate (Democrat) of any major party. This opened up doors for a generation of young girls who wanted to take part in politics and government. Then, with Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential bid, youth of color saw a glimmer of hope for those among them aspiring to take high political office, just as the hopes of the Civil Rights Movement were inching towards fruition. Yes, it was a promising time to be alive, and we were reminded of that during every pep-talk handed out by our school teachers.

The problem is, when we hit adolescence, elements of the real world start to rear their ugly heads. Competition in academics, the arts, and athletics become more intense, with top achievers setting their sights on getting into a prestigious university. The C-average student who said in 4th grade that he wanted to be a doctor suddenly finds himself behind the curve unless he’s in advanced placement classes, scores highly on the SAT, and ranks at the top of his class. Similarly, kids who wanted to play football find out rather quickly that unless they are at least 5′ 10″ weighing 170 pounds, they’re going to get creamed on the field against their much larger and stronger peers. The first grader who wanted to be a star singer comes to the realization that because she didn’t take voice lessons from an early age, her chances of getting into a good music school or even making it as a starving artist are slim to none. At the relatively tender age of 17 or 18, you find out that there are indeed limitations on what you can do.

Does that mean your childhood dreams are forever out of reach? No. You can take “the long way” around to get to your preferred destination. A 9th grader hoping to be a banker but lacking the grades and social connections necessary to get into an Ivy League school could eventually find himself in that career, but only after a substantial “detour” to a more modest post-secondary school, years of networking, and several unpaid internships. Whereas a top Ivy League grad pretty much skates into the world’s top investment banks, anyone from State U with average grades is going to have to work substantially harder unless someone in their family is willing to pull strings to land them a job. The same holds true for those wanting to be doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, or any other advanced professional career.

That said, there are many other paths one can take: learn a trade, join the military, start a business, invent something new, work for non-profit groups. These careers may not be as “sexy” as what you wanted to do while you were still coloring outside the lines in 1st grade, but they definitely pay the bills and can be quite rewarding. The point is that you can still live a good, happy, productive life even if your “dreams” go unfulfilled. A self employed carpenter worth his salt can clear $80,000 a year, even though he wanted to be a corporate lawyer at big law where he could have made triple that amount.

The scope of dreams is infinite, but the scope of reality is, sadly, quite finite.

I’m at a crossroads in my adult life career wise. I’ve been self employed for the past 7 years, making a decent living as an internet marketer. I learned all the tricks of the trade myself and never took a single computer science class course in college. This career path was much to the chagrin of my father, who was adamant about only paying for college if I graduated with what he termed a “worthwhile” degree. Music Appreciation or Political Theory wasn’t on his list, so I settled for Economics. Ten years later, I’ve forgotten much of my Economics knowledge but can write a PERL script to install an unlimited amount of WordPress blogs on a Linux server. I tried communicating that to my Dad, and he thought I was speaking in Chinese.

Now that I’m leaving Costa Rica and returning the USA, I’m reexamining everything. Do I want to continue in my current career “path”? Do I want to go back to school? Do I want to do some volunteer work? How can I pay the bills while I transition into something new? Am I limited by my educational “pedigree” or could I devote a year to studying for admission at a top graduate school? Should I run for city alderman or participate in politics, with the eventual goal of taking high office?

I have the luxury of all these options because of my limited social commitments. I’m not married. I have no children. My immediate family is somewhat close, although we tend to only get together for major holidays and the occasional wedding or funeral. I don’t have to worry about providing for anyone other than myself and a cat I adopted in Costa Rica. She’s a handful but pretty low maintenance otherwise. 🙂

I just find it inspiring when you see someone like President Obama appear on stage at the Democratic National Convention – a man blessed with exceptional oratorical abilities – bringing a crowd to their feet and making people cry. Sure, under all that rhetoric is a healthy ego: President Obama definitely believes in himself and is extremely confident. He’s also a fierce competitor. My question for him would not be one regarding politics (because those are debated on a daily basis) but more personal: “Mr. President, when did you decide that you wanted to be ‘Mr. President’, and how did you go about working towards this goal?”.

Mr. Obama didn’t necessarily state in first grade that he wanted to be President, he just pursued a life driven by achievement, competition, and winning. Eventually, this led him into politics and his ultimate calling as the 44th President of the United States.

Did he always know that he could be President, or was this something that dawned upon in during the course of becoming a mature adult?

For me, the problem isn’t thinking big. I have lots of ideas, plans, and goals. The problem is aligning those desires with who I truly am. It’s easy to think about being CEO of Apple Computer, but is that really who I am? It’s easy to picture yourself as the inventor of the next “big thing” in technology, but is that potential really within me? It’s easy to yearn for the power of high political office, but do I have what it takes to get there?

For once, I wish adults would stop telling kids “they can be anything they want”. Yes, this true to a degree, blah, blah, blah. The reality is that there are limitations to the extent of our success of Earth governed by our innate intelligence, talent, strength of character, decision making prowess, and ability to plan and organize our lives. For every Barack Obama, there are probably thousands of unhappy middle-aged men who wanted to run for office but just didn’t have financial resources, social skills, or charisma to do so.

That said, we shouldn’t exist in a caste society, with our position determined early on based on schoolwork, athletic talent, leadership capabilities, artistic abilities or musicianship. I still believe people should be free to pursue whatever dream gets them out of bed in the morning and excites them about the next day when they lie down for the night. It’s also important to be real and cognizant of our own abilities and limitations. Don’t settle for less than what you can achieve, not what you think you deserve. I suppose somewhere along this crucial process of self discovery, we figure out what we truly want based on what we truly are.