Limiting Your Dreams

I’m getting pretty tired of hearing fifteen-year old gymnasts, figure skaters and tennis players say…

Actually, I’m pretty tired of hearing them say damned near anything. But, in particular, I’m really fed up with the you-can-be-anything-you-want speech (which is almost as obnoxious as the this-is-my-dream speech, another Disney-derived cavity-inducer as devoid of substance as an episode of Barney).

Aside from my curmudgeonly cynicism, these thoughtless pronouncements probably do more harm than good, especially when gurgled up from the mouths of babes who may be world-class athletes but, even relative to other fifteen-year olds, know nothing of real life and ought not to be planting any notions in the minds of millions of admiring children who think the gilded ones are actually speaking ex cathedra.

You can be anything you want to be? I thought that died with the 60s. Listen, I’d dearly love to be a theoretical physicist, but I couldn’t be, no matter how badly I want it. Know why? I’m not smart enough. Never will be, regardless of what I might do or might have done when I was young.

On the other hand, I’ve got a niece who’s very likely a genuine genius, but even if she worked twenty hours a day to the exclusion of all other activities, she could never be a competitive figure skater. Hasn’t got the body type, hasn’t got the flexibility…hasn’t got the genes. She’ll have to settle for something else. Like theoretical physicist, maybe.

I know a lot of kids who would like to be doctors or lawyers or captains of industry or Olympic skiers, but it ain’t gonna happen. And if the latest twinkle-toed incarnation of the fairy princess tells them they can be, and they really can’t, then sooner or later they’re going to wonder what the hell is wrong with them, and that’s not going to help either them or the parents they’re going to have to live with for another ten years or so.

I don’t think that pummeling the great majority of normal kids with mindless platitudes is a very good idea. Kids have a tendency to take things literally, and may end up wasting a lot of time and frustrating themselves needlessly if it ultimately turns out that astronaut training is really not an option and that could have been figured out early on.

I’m not a great fan of the military but I have to grant the U.S. Army some real credit for an advertising slogan that reflects a healthier sentiment than those proffered by the gold medallists of the week: "Be all that you can be."

This simplistic maxim drips with common sense and reasonable ambition. Learn your basic capabilities and strive to fulfill them. Stretch as much as you want to find the outer edge of the envelope. But don’t set unreasonable goals just so that you can be bitterly disappointed when you can’t hit them.

My wife coaches people in triathlon and running. One of her key principles is to set ambitious but attainable goals for events. If someone who grooves along at nine minute miles in training announces that he wants to run a 2:30 marathon, she gives him holy hell for setting himself up for a certain fall. What’s the point of knowing in advance you’re going to fail?

It’s also the reason why she never asks anyone how they did in an event without first asking what their personal goal was; the absolute time is meaningless unless you’re a professional in contention for first place. But if someone you know just did the New York Marathon for the first time, and came in at four hours, is that good? It is if her goal was 4:15 or better.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t be tough on yourself and set the bar high so that, on any given day, your chances of success are maybe 60-40 against. This will keep you involved and motivated, and may eventually get you to the point where you can run that 2:30

How do you know in advance where the boundary of your potential is? Tough to say. But it should become apparent if you pay attention.

About six years ago I decided to go all out and give myself a new physique. I figured, if Jeff Goldblum could transform his body for The Fly, I ought to be able to do something.

I hired a top gun personal trainer at enormous expense and began pumping iron with a vengeance. I did intense weight work 90-120 minutes at a time, 4-5 days a week. After a few months of this I was pushing heavier weights than Schwarzenegger (literally; I worked out in his gym and knew what he was using). My legs in particular were very strong, and I was leg-pressing more weight than all but one pro in the gym. I did this religiously for 18 months.

At the end of which, I didn’t look much different than when I’d started. I was pretty strong, but basically it was the same old crummy body. And thus did I discover that particular limitation and, with great relief, abandon the quest.

We all have heard stories of fabled athletes whose childhood coaches warned the parents that they were never going to make it, only to have the little tykes, in furious defiance, prove the professionals wrong.

I’m sure there is a lot of truth to these stories, but two things are important to recognize. First, these kinds of legends have a way of taking on a life of their own, especially when fueled by highly paid publicists, and often attain mythical proportions at the expense of the truth.

Second, for every kid who proves the pro wrong, there are probably a few hundred thousand who didn’t. It’s the big success stories you hear about, not the ones who faded into oblivion. Just think about all the people you know who are writing novels or plays or stories and trying to get them published, firmly convinced that they are budding Hemingways missing only the opportunity to have their stuff seriously considered by a literary agent.

Before my attorney, for liability reasons, put a firm stop to it, I used to read things given to me by friends whose third cousin’s secretary’s housekeeper’s hairdresser was working on a really terrific novel. With very, very rare exception, this stuff was so bad it was painful to read, and yet the authors were convinced that a cruel world was ignoring them out of spite and giving favor only to the well-connected. I never had the heart to be honest about my opinions, but it wouldn’t have done any good anyway.

So I can only imagine what it must be like to tell a six-year old she’s a complete klutz and ought to give some serious thought to whether she really wants to blow her allowance money on those nickel-plated, stainless steel ice-skates. (Of course, I wouldn’t phrase it quite like that…okay, well I probably would, but you know what I mean.)

I believe with all my heart that one of the great keys to happiness is doing something you really love for a living. It’s more important to figure out what that is than it is to simply go for the highest paying job around.

When I was in my twenties, through a series of lucky accidents I wound up in the computer business, designing and programming large computer systems on advanced timesharing systems. I frequently worked seven days a week, 12-14 hours a day, It was the happiest I’ve ever been in a regular job, although I didn’t realize quite how much until later in life. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and hit it every day, and even when I moved into management and wound up running the whole operation, I still had a ball.

When I’d gone as far in that company as I could, I left for a much higher paying, more prestigious position as a management consultant in a large, international firm. I traveled all over the country, stayed at the best hotels, ate in the best restaurants and flew first class. I made more money than I had time to spend, and eventually became a partner in the firm, a real big deal. Just ask anybody.

But don’t ask me. I was miserable. I had to drag myself out of bed each morning just to watch my prime years slip away day by day. I found myself selling projects that didn’t bring a great deal of money into the firm but I thought might be enjoyable, and I gave speeches around the country on esoteric topics totally unrelated to business just to try to find something to relieve the tedium. Worst of all, my wife was in similar straits and we hardly saw each other.

What good was all that money and all those perks if I was so unhappy?

So I quit. Now I write for a living and I’m having even more fun than when I was building computer systems. I don’t have a fancy office or a secretary or an expense account or a high-falutin’ title, all the things I thought would be difficult to abandon, but now I look back on all those goodies and can’t even summon up why I use to think they were important.

I found my niche and, although it took until I was 41, I’m one happy camper.

So it bothers me a little to see parents pushing their kids in specific directions, confident in the belief that they’ll be happy as adults if they pursue those vocations. But isn’t it interesting how almost all of the "standard" parent wishes for their children’s professions — medicine and law being the top two — involve money and prestige rather than some perceived higher percentage of happy practitioners?

Some of the happiest people I know are accountants. They’re good with numbers, they perform a universally useful service, there’s always work available and they usually have time to spend with their families as long as it isn’t tax season. The profession is often looked upon as boring and soul-less, but it has a surprising number of challenges calling for great creativity and whose solutions can be very rewarding, and it often pays well. Yet how many parents do you see urging their progeny in this direction?

Find something you’re good at and that you’ll enjoy doing for a long time.

That’s a dream worth pursuing.

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