When you tell somebody: You can be anything,’ says Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me (2014), ‘that “anything” they’re thinking of is rarely a plumber or an accountant.’
Indeed, a 2011 survey of more than 5,000 children around the world revealed that while almost half of children in developing countries dreamed of becoming doctors and teachers, more than a quarter of American children aspire to such careers as professional athletes, singers and actors. When a grown‑up asks the inevitable: What do you want to be when you grow up?, most kids have an answer: video‑game developer; astronaut; back-up dancer for Rihanna. And many grown-ups will congratulate them for dreaming big, assuring them that, with hard work and a can-do attitude, they can be anything they want.
When your child is four or five, barring intellectual disabilities or severe behavioural diagnoses, anything does seem possible. A child shows an interest in art and we imagine his work eventually hanging in galleries. A talented runner, we think, might make the Olympics. Kids who love science are given microscopes and we begin to wonder if we should start saving up for college fees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Backing our hopes and theirs are the culture’s cheerleaders, led by viral convocation speeches and a steady stream of ‘overnight’ successes unveiled on reality shows and YouTube, all urging us to dream big and never give up.
Consider Steve Jobs’s commencement address to Stanford graduates in 2005. He was, of course, talking to the high achievers who had already earned a degree from a prestigious university. But with more than 22 million views on YouTube, his advice – ‘find what you love… Don’t settle’ – has resonated with the masses. Oprah Winfrey, whose own rags-to-riches tale gives her moral authority, insists that if we follow our passion, achievement will follow. Even Dr Seuss left us with Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990), which has become the go-to graduation gift for millions, assuring kids that their imminent success is ‘98 and ¾ per cent guaranteed’.
...At Florida State University, the sociologist John Reynolds reported that the gap between goals and actual achievements grew significantly over the period from 1976 to 2000. His study, published in Social Problems in 2006, found that just 26 per cent of high‑school seniors in 1976 planned to get an advanced degree and 41 per cent planned to work as professionals, compared with 50 per cent and 63 per cent, respectively, in 2000. Despite the soaring change in ambition, there was no increase in advanced degrees. What did increase was disappointment; the gap between expectation of earning an advanced degree and actually getting one grew from 22 percentage points in 1976 to 41 percentage points in 2000. [emphases added]
Combine the optimism surging in teens with the unchanged unlikelihood of being a vocational this or that; with parental encouragement and pressure to "be anything you want to be"; and add to this the frequently unstated core assumption--articulated so readily by Mark Driscoll in his sermons and books, you're not going for a "joe job". Our Aeon contributor puts it beautifully
The problem, she says, isn’t telling kids you can be anything, it’s our narrow idea of what ‘anything’ is. ‘We’re equating it with prestige, power, title, money, certain sectors. If we could shift, over the next decade, toward high achievement being the equivalent of knowing your skills and your values and your passion, and living accordingly, imagine what a different world we’d be living in.’
As expounded upon at length in the ribbon farm piece "You are not an artisan", many today want career paths that are characterized by "conspicuous production". People gravitate toward the artisan rather than the scut-work of the chimney sweep because of the prestige. There's a whole lot of Americans who bristle at the idea of being a time-punching wage slave. You're not supposed to have some steady job that lacks prestige, perhaps, but lets you get by. American kids may be getting urged to "follow your dream" and the dreams that are celebrated are the ones that involve prestige and what could be termed "sexy", conspicuous production. At ribbon farm this was formulated as follows-- "The future of work looks bleaker than it needs to for one simple reason: we bring consumption sensibilities to production behavior choices."
The author goes on to say that we're not worried that the machines will take away all the tedious or dangerous jobs we don't want to do, we're worried the machines can take away the sexy prestigious jobs we still want to be able to do. The bard vs chimney sweep contrast is fun, and it's fun in part because while a machine could potentially do the chimney sweep thing in our time, there's by now been albums of music by a computer program composer. The idea that music and the arts are so inalienably human computer programs can't produce things for them is not as incontestable a point as would have been assumed a century ago. The writing of popular mainstream Christian books can be farmed out to ghostwriters these days and stuff can get recycled but somebody's got to change that diaper (whether for persons young or old). That kind of work is going to stick around for a while longer even in an era in which many a musical work sounds similar.
There were two bits of formative counsel I got in college. The first was "Most of you are average writers so most of you will get average grades. There's nothing wrong with getting a C." There's a liberation in being average. You can end up being excellent at something down the line, perhaps, but you'll get there by dint of continuous work and careful thought, not necessarily by some natural born genius or talent (though those don't hurt, if you have them).
The second bit of counsel I got was, "You'll probably never have a career in the arts but if you can find work that lets you pay the bills and spend time with friends and family and, after that, also have time to make the art or music you want to make, that's good enough. That's a pretty good deal." Scott Timberg can fret that the arts will be a luxury or leisure activity as much as he wants, but the arts have always been a leisure activity. It's what humans start doing when mere survival is not the foremost concern. Even if we don't linger to long on the reality that you cannot, in fact, be anything you want to be and that the power of never giving up and of believing in yourself won't change the impossibility of some things or reduce their improbability, what may be more liberating than following that dream could be realizing that that dream can be pursued as a hobby, not a vocation.
But what are the odds that we can say to our fellow Americans "Expect less from life and consider the constant proximity of death and you might enjoy life more"? Americans expecting less from life? Didn't one of our writers declare something or other about sucking the marrow out of life? Meh. Give a shot, perhaps, but life can suck the marrow out of you along the way.