Were you born to be a super hero? A Star? A billionaire? Can you be anything you want to be? Did your parents tell you that you could? Have you heard this message from others around you? From movies and TV and maybe your teachers? Can you see how incredibly empowering this can be? How about how damaging it can be? Have we really created a cult of self esteem?
I am from a generation that was told that we are special and that if we put our mind to it we can be anything that we want to be. For some of us this worked out incredibly well. But this also left many feeling insecure and unsuccesful. What if you had the potential to be president, but you ended up being an employee at the bank? What if you dreamed about being a ballerina, but haven’t danced in a few years because you dedicate all of your time to raising 3 kids? Is it harder to feel like a success because of the infinite potential you were led to believe we all have.
And what of your uniqueness? Might this have contributed to your sense that no one understands? That no one gets you? That you will never find your one true love? What if you were raised being told just how wonderful it is that you have so much in common with each and every person on this planet? That we all have the same dreams, the same pains and the same struggles? Might you feel less alone and less like you need to accomplish something great in order to be happy? That is the goal right? To be happy, not to be a star. We want stardom because we think it will make us happy.
This topic surrounds me lately. In the media, in my mind, in my friendships and certainly with my coaching clients. There is only one president and not too many more professional ballerinas or ball players. There are a lot of highly skilled blue-collar workers. I spent the better part of a decade as one myself. The entire time I was both haunted and inspired by a sense that I was intended for greatness, that I was unique and special and that doing what others do couldn’t possibly be good enough. At times it drove me forward. Far more often it left me feeling inadequate and like a failure.
The author Keith Martin-Smith, whose brilliant novel A Heart Blown Open I wrote about earlier, recently started a kickstarter campaign to help him write a novel about this idea. Check out his rather funny video explaining the topic and contribute. I really want to read this book! (only hours left!!!)
We have all been told that chasing your dreams is at the core of being an American. What we haven’t all been prepared for is the immense work this takes and the simple fact that as long as we keep growing we will always have a future dream. This means we MUST learn to appreciate the present no matter how much more we want. Otherwise happiness will remain elusive. My goal is to strive for more because I love what I have so much that of course I want more. Not because I want to get away from the current reality.
The Atlantic recently published an article about what they call the “magic-feather syndrome” titled “You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?” The article breaks down the childrens movie formula of “outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams…by believing that their greatest gifts come from within.” The piece goes on to detail how it is not hard work and years and years of effort which, without resilience and determination might resemble failure, that will get you to your goal. In these movies it is simply belief in your own greatness which grants you shortcuts to the big leagues. This is what we are all raised on. We all get what they are trying to accomplish. It feels great to think you can be great. And it is a decent first step. There is much truth in this. But all of the other steps resemble really hard work. This is what we need to be trained to love! How often did your parents praise you for your Charlie Brown like failed attempts? How often were you told that it is only failure if you stop trying, but a learning experience if you take notes and adapt to what the world needs? In an interview with Martin-Smith, Robb Smith (no relation) recently said that when speaking with his children “I would translate…’You can be anything you want’ to ‘You can be be anything the world needs you to be’. I say, ‘You are kind, you are smart, you are important, and you will put love first.’ How different of a message is that? It may sound limiting, but it can be incredibly inspiring once we feel what it is like to be of service to others.
If you saw Ashton Kutcher’s surprisingly great acceptance speech at the Teen Choice Awards recently than one of the three things that you learned is that “opportunity looks a lot like hard work.” He talks about working one menial job after another as he moved from one job to another slightly better job. The point is that he didn’t stroll the streets of Hollywood avoiding day jobs as he waited to be discovered. He worked hard to better his situation constantly and most of the time it wasn’t glamorous.
I don’t actually know much about Ashton’s story, but I love the message he offered. I think that all of our parents who told us to dream big did something incredibly right. They created a space for our dreams to grow and for game changing ideas to emerge. What some of us did not learn was a work ethic and a tolerance and eagerness for things which are not our ultimate dream, but which moves that asymptotic line a bit closer to the ideal. Most of all, few of us learned gratitude, that deep bow to the awe and wonder that is our every breath here on earth no matter how that time is spent. Let your striving be a celebration. Let your dreams create movement that stirs you towards service.
And check out Aston’s speech. It may pleasantly surprise you:
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