It sounds unobjectionable, like an encouraging pat on the back from a coach.
For many people, it’s a rule to live by. It resembles a moral precept. It constitutes one of the bases of today’s therapy culture. After they buy it, people do not understand why it doesn’t work. The rule says that people can be whatever they want to be.
San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge has been fighting the good fight against this rule. She has also led the charge against the self-esteemism that buttresses it.
Leslie Garrett quotes Twenge in her Aeon article:
‘You can be anything you want to be’ is pithy advice that isn’t helping most of the young launch careers or find satisfaction in life. If we really think about it, few of us mean it literally. Twenge has told her daughter that ‘when people say you can be anything, it’s not true. For example, you can’t be a dinosaur.’
Of course, even if you can’t be a dinosaur, you might be able to become Bruce Jenner. I hear that the job is open.
Funnily enough, children who are told that they can be what they want to be are often skeptical. Gwenyth is around 12. Garret reports this exchange:
Her teacher, Mrs Ensing, who is optimistic about Gwenyth’s prospects, routinely tells her elite group that they can be anything they want to be.
Gwenyth likes her teacher but is troubled by this philosophy. ‘You can’t be anything,’ she says, ‘if you don’t manage to get the marks good enough, or if you have the wrong idea about it. There was a guy on YouTube who wanted to be a veterinarian and they made him watch a video of something happening to an animal and he fainted, so he didn’t get the job.’
Even a child understands that that this new precept, this new way to live your life, is nonsense. How many adults are reasoning at a twelve-year-old level?
So, we have gotten in the habit of lying to children. It’s not a good thing. It’s even worse when we decide that we must use the school system to force these children to believe that the lies are a higher truth.
One recalls that famed management consultant Peter Drucker advised young people to do what they were good at. Don’t follow your bliss or your wishes. Let your talent by your guide.
Drucker explained, in a pamphlet called “Managing Oneself,” that you will be more successful and happier if you become great at something you are good at than to become good at something you are mediocre at.
Others have made the same point:
Having lofty dreams can be a wonderful thing. It’s a natural part of childhood to imagine great things for ourselves, says Laura Berk, a professor emerita of economics at Illinois State University and one of the world’s experts on play. And, as kids grow and try, and succeed and fail, the world will shape those dreams.
Behind the bromides is the wish that we not be bound by our talents, by our genetics, by our temperament, by our character
The problem arises when we counter the world’s feedback with platitudes such as ‘you can be anything you want’ or ‘don’t give up.’ Tracey Cleantis, a psychotherapist in California and the author of The Next Happy (2015), says that behind such bromides ‘is a kind of wish of parents or ourselves that we’re not bound by our talents, by our genetics, by our temperament, by our character. I think it really creates shame and guilt and feelings of failure.’
If you lack the talent to excel at an activity you will be wasting your time and money pursuing it. For example, yesterday, I was watching an interview with David Rubenstein, co-founder of the private equity firm, The Carlyle Group, on a show called Wall Street Week.
Rubenstein explained that after he graduated from law school a senior partner in his law firm took him aside and told him that he would never be a great lawyer. So Rubenstein went to work in government and eventually found what he was good at: private equity.
Another problem with bad advice is that it skews your values. If you imagine that success befalls those who really, really want something, you will be less likely to work at your job and more likely to work at intensifying your desire. You will assume that failure signals the fact that you do not want it badly enough.
‘What it essentially says to our children,’ adds Penelope Trunk, author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success (2007), ‘is that, if they don’t achieve their dreams, they have no one to blame but themselves.’ Indeed, the transition to adulthood is already overwrought, and it’s made only more difficult when you think you can do anything and then feel completely incompetent when you can’t.
We’ve seen ‘rising expectations among everybody for work that’s more than just a salary,’ says Krznaric. ‘You see this among people who are highly educated or [those who] don’t have very many qualifications, and that helps explain why job dissatisfaction tends to rise over the past couple of decades, because people are asking … to use their talents or passions in their work.’
Those who follow this advice might also believe that if only they think positive thoughts, reality will return the favor:
‘This links to the cult of positive thinking,’ says Krznaric, ‘where we’re always wanting to feel up and good and send positive messages… and so we feel that we should only be sending good messages and positive messages to our children and to young people. That it’s somehow wrong or bad or inappropriate to tell them: actually, it isn’t possible.’
Instead of emphasising you’re special, you’re great, ‘teach self-control and hard work,’ Twenge says. ‘Those two things are actually connected to success.’
Those who tell us to follow our passions have simply gotten it backwards. If we follow our talent and work hard at it we will love our work. If we have no talent and follow a passion we will become disillusioned and bitter.
Cal Newport explained it clearly, as summarized by Garrett:
Cal Newport, the author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You (2012) and a computer science researcher at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, adds that we have got the passion/purpose equation backwards. ‘It misrepresents how people actually end up passionate about their work,’ he says. ‘It assumes that people must have a pre-existing passion, and the only challenge is identifying it and raising the courage to pursue it. But this is nonsense.’ Passion doesn’t lead to purpose but rather, the other way around. People who get really good at something that’s useful and that the world values become passionate about what they’re doing. Finding a great career is a matter of picking something that feels useful and interesting. Not only will you find great meaning in the honing of the craft itself, but having a hard-won skill puts you in a position to dictate how your professional life unfolds.