“YOU CAN be anything you want to be, if you work hard enough.”
My daughter once wrote an essay stating this was one of the chief lessons I’d taught her. And I thought to myself, “Gee, I hope not.” Why? Because the notion is blazingly untrue.
Of course, this hasn’t stopped it from becoming a core platitude of our civic culture. It is the message of many a parental homily and classroom oration, stitched into samplers and shouted from the self-help aisle at Borders.
This smug platitude can damage lives. It can thwart social justice.
Perhaps you’re thinking: Wait a minute, pal. Don’t you believe in dreams, persistence and hard work? Yes, I do. But I’ve also noticed something: The lifelong interplay between pluck and luck, between personal will and genes, between effort and social circumstance, is intricate and unpredictable.
You can yearn ardently to become something, yet lack the essential aptitude. Or you can work hard toward a rational dream, and be thwarted by the fates.
“You can be anything you want to be” willfully ignores all of this. Its first fault is to encourage folks to pursue false dreams. Its second is to encourage the lucky to blame the less lucky when they fall short (which only encourages the unlucky to become mired in grievance).
You know what I thirsted to be when I was a kid? Shortstop for the Cleveland Indians. But the genetic lottery rendered me too short, slow and myopic ever to reach that goal. I could have worked in the batting cage until my palms bled and still never sniffed that dream. I’m lucky life clued me into this early.
Think of all the kids now dreaming of NBA riches as they play hoops on an inner-city court. How much better off they’d be, though, if they dropped that long-shot obsession and instead honed the other skills they have. And they do have skills, which could flower with the right outlet, but which so often aren’t valued in their world.
The oft-mocked U.S. Army slogan actually sends a much better message: “Be all that you can be.” Underline the word you. We should urge kids to dream dreams that pay attention to who they really are, what they really could do, instead of chasing flashy notions of success tossed off by a toxic popular culture.
Now, the second fault. To paraphrase novelist John Barth, every man sees himself as the hero of his own life story. This leads many to overrate the role their own pluck played in success, while denigrating luck’s input.
By luck, I mean not just serendipity, but all the ways that the birth lottery blesses (or curses) you: genes, geography, family, race.
The American philosopher John Rawls once urged us to imagine that, before birth, every soul could see how randomly and fatefully the advantages of birth are distributed. Imagine next that the soul would have no clue where it would be placed in this world. Justice, Rawls suggested, might consist of the rules those wise souls would write to temper the unfair impact of the birth lottery.
In Rawls’ lottery, I was absurdly lucky: I had great parents who sent me to great schools. I found my career through purest serendipity. While unemployed, I bumped into a college acquaintance whose father owned a newspaper. She made a call, and I got hired. I’ve worked hard since, but I’m fully aware how much luck has aided me.
Unfortunately, in our society, some successful people turn “you can be whatever you want to be” into a tool to puff themselves up, to justify selfish grabs for favored treatment — and into a club to beat down others.
The durable Hollywood vogue for movies such as “Pursuit of Happyness,” in which a loser in life’s lottery overcomes long odds, speaks to the desire of society’s winners to reassure themselves that success is all about their own pluck, not luck: “See? That guy made it. Why can’t the rest of those bums?” The effects of such thinking on public policy have been vivid in Washington lately.
Now, let’s agree that many people stumble and fail because they make lousy choices. People need to be held responsible for bad choices if they’re ever to learn to make better ones. But, please, let’s recognize that it’s easier to make bad choices when so many of them are on offer in the place where you live.
And let’s think of those poor kids murdered against that wall in Newark. They were really good kids, trying to work toward dreams. Their only mistake was to live near Newark.
So, too, in ways less dramatic but still daunting, the circumstances of being born into cursed neighborhoods — places of public chaos and family breakdown, of crack vials, gunshots, bad schools and black markets — cut down the dreams of other good kids.
If we want those kids to believe the dream, let’s offer them the stuff of genuine hope — better schools, better choices, real attention to their voices — not smug platitudes.