Monday, July 27, 2015

Can You Be Anything You Want?

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.

Garrett explains:

‘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.


JP said...

I would not use Penelope Trunk as a support for your argument.

Stuart Schneiderman said...


David Foster said...

A related problem is that it's very difficult for kids to find out what the field they think they are interested in is *really like*. I'm sure there are lots of people who thought being a lawyer (for example) would be really cool, until they became one. There are lots of people who want to become "executives" but do not really enjoy the often-difficult interactions that come with managing people or the stress of making irrevocable decisions based on very incomplete information.

Guidance counselors generally don't know all that much about the outside world. Professors, however well-meaning, are likely to oversell their own fields to talented students. TV programs focus on a few select professors (lawyer, cop, eevil CEO) and hardly portray them accurately. Parents will often not know very much about fields other than their own. And various books on "career opportunities" seem mostly to be warmed-over reformatting of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

priss rules said...

When an adult says that to a child, the child should respond, "you mean the most you wanted from life was to be an elementary school teacher?"

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

"So, we have gotten in the habit of lying to children. It’s not a good thing."

Correct. Lying is very, very bad. The net-net-net reason it is bad is that it wastes people's time, and our time, relationships and experiences are all we have in life. Lying compromises all three. Remember: discover you can't believe what someone is saying is a progressive process. It takes time. Even if you don't trust anyone, and people have to "earn" your trust, it takes time. This kind of "smiley lying" from elders is corrosive because what you learn is that you cannot trust the words and signaling of others. The others get to feel good about themselves thinking they propped up your self esteem for another six minutes. Then they go home. Some would say this is life. I agree, but it is a terrible part of life. And we've dressed it up as the "nice" way to be around people.

The truth is that you can be anything you want. The other truth is that no one is bound to give it to you. It's the second part that no one talks about... the dirty little secret we hide from today's youth. Hope is a powerful thing. Hope formed on lies is a mobile, weaponized disaster in the making, with no failsafe and no back door.

Question: Where did you learn this lie? The sad truth for kids today is they seem to be learning it everywhere. When 12-year-olds have cornered the market on wisdom in a school setting, we are in scary shape indeed. We tell kids how amazingly extraordinary they are, but we omit the other half: they are amazingly ordinary. And everyone treats you like you're ordinary until you demonstrate you're extraordinary. No one owes you anything. It's in thinking "That doesn't apply to me, I'm special!" where we really see the beginnings of the kind of lifelong pain borne from betrayal.

So the real truth that must be communicated to young people is that they are responsible for their own lives... the meaning, love and creativity they bring to their lives. Again, they certainly CAN be anything they want. What so few are telling them is that they are also responsible for their choices. Choices are the key, not wants and desires. Purpose is important, and you can build a life on it, and it doesn't have to be glamorous... you can make your own mark on the world and be loved for your contribution. Just because your dent on the world doesn't end up on the Glowing Box does not mean it's not important.

No one owes you a living. No one is duty-bound to make your dreams possible. No one can make you feel an emotion... whether it's the "mean" person who tells you your artwork sucks, or the "nice" person who tells you it's the greatest thing ever. In terms of economic utility, all that matters is whether the "nice" person buys what you're offering. You can't hang your hat or feed yourself on platitudes forever. When we allow children (or adults) to say "That person made me feel _____" and validate that feeling, we are contributing to an emotionally decadent and insane course of childlike dependency and narcissism. No one can make you feel anything emotionally. You do. Period.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Kids need a safe place to explore and test possibilities, but eventually we have to start taking the padding off the walls to begin to introduce reality. To David Foster's point, they need to see what it's really about. In 6th grade, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, just like my father. Once I was in college, I clerked at my dad's office. I did it for two summers. I never wanted to be a lawyer afterwards. I would've loved being a law school professor, but wisely saw the utility of that career path and the academic credentialing required to do it. No thanks. I thank God that I saw what the factory life of transactional legal services is. I am much happier for it.

And yes, when Caitlyn Jenner is celebrated, we've crossed a line. I'll call Bruce Caitlyn, but I will never refer to him as "she" or "her." Caitlyn Jenner is a male. If he "identifies" another way, fine. But that doesn't change reality. Anyone can be called by the name he or she desires. Everyone has the right to their own name. But no one has the right to demand that I accept their imaginations about gender. Every piece I read on Jenner is effectively farcical. You read these quotes and statements he makes, and it's just crazy talk... like someone ranting about orcs, jawas and Price Caspian.

Jean Twenge is a personal favorite of mine. I wish she'd write more books. She's the prophet for a generation.

Ares Olympus said...

re: 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.

It doesn't seem clear to me to contrast passions versus talent. At least they would seem to be correlated together.

But everything is relative, and so your passions and skill can't always compete over someone else's passions and skill. You might be a "big fish in a small pond" if you get lucky, or you might have a passion and skill that can now be outsourced to India or China where even if they are half as skilled, they can work for 1/10th as much.

It is surprising that many people willing choose degrees in things that will never secure them a high wage, but I do see that the goal should be to find something you love to do that can pay you enough to be happy.

And that would be my definition of "follow your bliss", but eyes-wide open, knowing the compromises you're making and not blaming the world because what you really want to do isn't paid as much as something you're unwilling to do.

Anonymous said...

I work with Boy Scouts. I tell them they all can't be football stars. They all can't be #1 in their class. They can't all be the best chess player. In short, because some things only one person can be, they can't be anything they desire.

But, I tell them that each and every one can, if they want to, become Eagle Scouts. Which will tell employers and others they were able to set a goal, and with a lot of hard work, achieve it. And point out what Eagle Scouts from their troop and school have done. Starting with they're all employed.

And each year I set them up for success by setting goals they can reach that year. This merit badge, or that advancement. Realistic goals are important.

Anonymous said...

I had an otherwise outstanding grade school teacher tell me "You can be anything you want!" after I made perfect scores on the standard aptitude tests.

I am no basketball fan. So when Michael Jordan came out of retirement, I asked a fan, "Can he still dunk a basket?" "Sure!," came the response, "But he can't launch himself from the foul line like he used to."

Can you dunk a basket? I had a high school psychology teacher whose theory about why society rewards professional athletes with high paychecks had to do with statistics: there aren't many men who can dunk a basket, or women who have outstanding beauty when photographed, so the ones that can and do get high rates of pay.

Actually super models and athletes and CEOs get overpaid because of our infantile bias and the structure of society supporting mass media and advertising. The men who kept us alive in tribes had attributes like professional athletes, and the females who gave birth to us and saw that our needs were met, were considered exceptionally beautiful (even an ugly mother is beautiful if she meets her child's authentic needs). Thus beauty and talent are desired to sustain life and because we have created a financial system to capture this psychology those who are athletic or beautiful or good at corporate power politics are rewarded with high rates of pay.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Anonymous @July 29, 2015 at 7:59 PM:

I am curious about your comment and remarks about "infantile bias" and these people being "overpaid". What do you suggest as a superior system, as the criticism therein seems to be the crux of your argument. What about admiring these people is "infantile"? What is a superior way to manage these "biases"? What characteristics beyond superlative strength/health/training, beauty and the ability to lead and work with people should we reward, and at what levels?

My experience is that people with high analytical intelligence -- the kind measured for in standardized tests on the SAT, et al -- tend to think analytical intelligence is the most important form of contribution to a society, and that those possessing it are not rewarded with commensurate compensation. Meanwhile, we all know that courage, beauty and interpersonal skills are always in high demand, and are recognized by neurological desires that trump the analytical calculations of the neocortex. In other words, we are hardwired for this sort of bias. And perhaps it's not an unfortunate bias, but instead one we don't yet fully appreciate in scale and scope.

For the sake of exchange, I'd like to be "open kimono" here about my own biases...

I become concerned when people want to reengineer society's biases we can't hope to overcome. An unsolvable problem is a condition, and one we should manage as best we can, without delusions that we can eradicate it. That said, my opinion is that our society overvalues analytical intelligence, because one can only analyze what exists. Creative people bring new things into existence, which employs analytically intelligent people. Creativity is a distinct skill set that is undervalued because the analytically intelligent whiz kids can't establish a predictive value for it.

We have overvalued education that encourages and rewards analytical intelligence, and makes its economic utility (and now primacy) into a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are ruled by people who run institutions that place a premium on analytical intelligence, and then we wonder why said institutions become sclerotic, bureaucratic and unresponsive. All the while, our betters (who are perpetually talking about "equality" they could never believe applies to themselves) tell us there is a "better way" to run society -- a way provided by them, of course -- that treats human beings as statistics, mechanical contraptions, etc. that could be better managed by their new "wonder system." Our problems would, er, vanish.

The human condition is an unsolvable problem. All who have tried to solve it require totalitarian means which result in terrifying outcomes that devastate the dignity of the human person.

So that's my take. With that, I would appreciate your clarification.

Anonymous said...


Black Elk once said that the Wasichu came to kill his peoples and the buffalo (living beings) because "Up in the Black Hills they found much of the little yellow metal which they worship and it makes them crazy."

Do you think it is mature to kill people and living things for the love of money, a dead-thing? And if it is not mature then is it not an infantile misunderstanding of the nature of life to engage in such foolish behavior?

Anonymous said...


If courage is in such high demand then tell me why do soldiers and police risk life for a living wage while Warren Buffet and his kind merely take reputation risk to gain much wealth? Shouldn't society reward the actual heroes with "over-sized" paychecks?

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Anonymous @July 29, 2015 at 7:30 AM:

"If courage is in such high demand then tell me why do soldiers and police risk life for a living wage while Warren Buffet and his kind merely take reputation risk to gain much wealth? Shouldn't society reward the actual heroes with "over-sized" paychecks?"

I don't know the answer to that question. Perhaps because that kind of service has a high meaning for them. Perhaps their life is of minor value in comparison to what they believe in.

Courage shows up in many forms. I would hesitate to say that Warren Buffett doesn't have courage, nor can I speak to all of "his kind".

It really depends on what someone finds "heroic." Aristotle believed courage was the most important of the virtues because it makes all the others possible. Salespeople earn lots of money, and courage is in high demand for that job. It's very difficult to find good salespeople. The behavior required to succeed in the sales profession is counterintuitive to the emotional wiring of most human beings. Good salespeople are paid huge sums. Is it worth it? Ask their employer... somebody's paying them.

Ultimately, it comes down to supply and demand. Teachers are valuable, but we don't pay them what we pay CEOs. I also don't think we should pay teachers as much as we do CEOs because they're not comparable roles. CEOs bear a much greater risk, and their responsibilities are much greater. That's just one example.

Do I think there is some self-dealing in corporate America that inflates executive compensation? Yes, I do. Do I think there's a lot of it? Not really. Executive pay is generally based on the scale of the corporation. Sometimes success or failure is due to factors beyond a CEOs control. In the end, it's likely a wash. But the executive has a lot at risk. He/she can't easily find another job that is commensurate with their knowledge and experience. Most of the self-dealing issues we encounter with executive pay are because of malfeasance on the part of corporate board members, who are not fulfilling their oversight responsibilities. This kind of thing can happen. It's part of the human condition. We are never going to get rid of it. Ultimately, it comes down to character.

We honor our heroes differently. I would much rather talk with a Congressional Medal of Honor winner or someone who carried a baby out of a burning building than I would talk to a CEO like Jeffrey Immelt of GE. Is that "infantile"? I don't think so. Is my reverence for the MOH or fireman because of hardwired response? Probably. Do I think that baby's worth more than a pile of money? Damn straight. Do I think society will ever value the fireman's contribution over the CEOs in terms of compensation? No, I do not. And I'm not going to crusade for that. I'm also not going to say it's unfair. It may be unjust, but we're talking about economic utility over human life. I'm not sure there will ever be justice or equivalence for something like that. We're human. We're flawed. We're crazy about money. That's how we're wired. I don't know that you can solve it, and I don't think forcing people into compensation schemes is smart. That's just me.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Anonymous @July 29, 2015 at 7:19 AM:

"Black Elk once said that the Wasichu came to kill his peoples and the buffalo (living beings) because "Up in the Black Hills they found much of the little yellow metal which they worship and it makes them crazy.""
Yes, gold does make people crazy. It's been used in countless cultures and nations for millennia because of its elemental properties, beauty, and selection as a currency form/standard. It's money: convertible property. Property is something human beings want. They will do all kinds of things for it, to the point of killing other human beings. What I'm saying is that I'm not so sure that's as "infantile" as it hardwired, and we learn to manage it as best we can. Cavemen dealt with it, modern man deals with it. Black Elk's tribe probably had lots of symbols that made them crazy, too. They had items and tokens of worship. I don't deify the greatness of Native Americans because they didn't have a reference point for gold. I guarantee you they had reference points for other things. Like the buffalo. The buffalo was respected and revered because it was key to their survival. Devaluing the European enchantment with gold as a "little yellow metal" is as ignorant and insane as wantonly shooting buffalo for their hides and leaving the carcasses to rot in the hot western sun, like the "Wasichu" did. I'm sure that was horrifying for Black Elk. And his lack of understanding of Wasichu ultimately created pain for his people. If the gold is so invaluable as the "little yellow metal," let the white man have it. But we all know the truth is much more complex than that. If we hold the Native Americans as human -- which they are -- we must assume they had their idols of sin, too. I'm not going to buy into this idea that the Indians were so pure and virtuous. I'm sorry if this seems cruel and ruthless, but in my view, it's true.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Anonymous @July 29, 2015 at 7:19 AM:

"Do you think it is mature to kill people and living things for the love of money, a dead-thing? And if it is not mature then is it not an infantile misunderstanding of the nature of life to engage in such foolish behavior?"
Yes, I do think it's mature behavior. Children don't do it. Money is not just money, it's currency. It's a medium of exchange. Go back to a barter economy and you'll see people doing crazy things to get physical stuff of all varieties. They'll steal, maim, injure or kill to get it. Like stealing livestock. Money is a symbol for material wealth... it's a substitute for something real. I'm not trying to talk down to you... you certainly know this, but we have to define our terms to have exchange. I think we can agree that the problem is the love of money over people. Changing this requires a transformation in how we view human beings... the dignity of the human person. Money isn't alive or dead, it just is. And we're never going to get rid of it, and we're never going to get rid of the human condition. You have your understanding of the nature of life, and it seems we would share that. There are things I will not do for money. There are trusts that I will not violate for money. I had to learn those things and experience life to have that understanding of value. But the idea that people are "infantile" or "stupid" in the way they view money versus life does not evangelize people about the value of human life and the dignity of the human person. People -- mature people -- do believe in an exclusively material life. They do believe this life and their carbon bodies are all there is. They do want money... lots of it. And they will step over a homeless man lying in his own piss in order to grab the $5 bill the homeless man dropped when he fell. Do I think that's just? No, I do not. But I cannot make another man help the homeless man. I cannot stop another man in taking the $5 if my intention is to help the homeless man. The $5 bill is of no consequence to me. That is a spiritual/religious tenet for me. I'm sure there are millions of people who think me foolish or infantile for believing in some god-man named Jesus of Nazareth. Yet it is that man-God's teachings that inform me and my choices. And I sin, and experience all kinds of moral failures in my life. I don't like it when people devalue life in desire for money. I don't like it when people devalue human beings for other options. Yet I'd be lying if I didn't say that I get tempted. It infuriates me that the Drudge Report today has a lead story illustrating the rage over this Cecil the lion being shot -- which is terrible and should be prosecuted -- while the butchery of Planned Parenthood goes on and on... seeking money for aborted body parts. Where is the outrage? There's a sickness in human beings, and the only way out is a higher calling. When all you believe in is yourself and material things, you are doomed to a life of want, scarcity, violence and despair. I hope we can agree on that.

Anonymous said...


I reference Black Elk as one example of an individual and group (Lakota peoples) that do not appear to be hardwired to express an appetite for little yellow metal (gold), lifeless tokens of exchange, financial assets which are debt obligations of others, etc. So the appetite for money and accumulation of financial assets must be soft-wired and infantile in origin. We can admire the beauty of males or females, the talents of athletes, and social skills of members of the tribe without placing any price whatever on such things, but not if our infantile bias causes us to transfer money to those whom we admire via the legal and financial games people play.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Anonymous @July 29, 2015 at 3:18 PM:

"So the appetite for money and accumulation of financial assets must be soft-wired and infantile in origin."

We are at an impasse. If you don't think people want stuff, even if it is symbolic and convertible, I don't know what further to say. It is hardwired. "More, better, faster" is hardwired. The Lakotas were hunter-gatherers.the fact that Black Elk couldn't track with that is why he is romantically lionized, yet he's a primitive by comparison.

You must be disgusted with our modern economy. Which brings me to my original question: what do YOU propose we do about it? We certainly don't need a bunch of adult infants walking around!