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Telling Kids They Can Do Anything

Invisibilia had a disturbing episode this season that I’m still thinking about.  It talked about the benefits and dangers of considering a “future” self.  You can listen here:

The benefit story was, of course, inspiring.  Boy with nothing sets his sights on becoming a deejay and eventually reaches Canada and becomes a deejay.  That deejay dream kept him going when he scrounged for food and shelter to stay alive.

The drawback story was upsetting.  It told the story of two kids who committed suicide after not being able to reach their future self.  In both cases, the teenager had a dream of attending a certain college and was using hypnosis to try to reach said goal.  The implication was that the hypnosis sessions were directly tied to the deaths.

The larger point is whether it is healthy to tell people that they can achieve anything.  Do we do more damage when conveying this mindset, or is the hope of reaching a future self a necessary ingredient in living a fulfilling life?  Is dreaming up a future self different from goal setting?  Can goals be bad for you?

The episode clearly made me think about infertility; being goal-driven to build a family and the disappointments that came with that goal when I was having trouble reaching my future parenting self.  It made me wonder if there was a way to build a strong desire for a goal while also including an escape route to a different goal if it becomes clear that the first goal isn’t going to come true.  Maybe it isn’t possible to harness the drive needed to achieve some goals without blotting out all other possibilities.  But in doing so, you risk severe anguish when the brain can’t find closure.

It was obviously a lot of food for thought.


1 Cristy { 08.13.17 at 3:01 pm }

I deal with this daily. There’s this assumption of destiny and just needing to work hard enough to achieve any dream. The truth is, that’s rarely how it works out. Sure, we should all have goals and there’s a lot to be said about being brace enough to chance failure. But when the specific end goal or bust is the mentality? When it’s only one path or nothing at all? Well, that’s where a lot of trauma and bad things happen.

I’m a living, breathing example of plan B (and plan C) and how it can be just as good if not better path. There are so many things I’ve learned through failure and loss. And it’s something I think we need to start teaching and embracing. Because this life, though not the one I envisioned, is actually pretty awesome in a lot of ways.

2 torthuil { 08.13.17 at 3:44 pm }

I think “you can achieve anything” definitely needs to be qualified. Otherwise yes, it leads to unrealistic expectations and also I think it is too vague for realistic goal setting. Anything? What is anything? How do I know what is valuable or meaningful to achieve? How will I know if I’ve succeeded? Etc

So I would go with: You can achieve anything! that is linked to a real and observable need in the world for a product or service that you have the ability to provide. To discover that ability or lack of will require experimentation, risk taking, and honest self assessment as well as the ability to read others. In addition, achieving your “anything” will require sacrifices, and some of those sacrifices may change your view of the “anything” and it’s relative worth. You may even find the journey toward the “anything” has more value than the anything itself. You may go on a truly lovely detour. But if you act with your whole heart, you will always have an interesting story to tell, no matter what: (note I did not say pleasant or happy, necessarily, though hopefully there is plenty of that, and anybody who doesn’t wish or want you to be happy is probably an ass, just saying).

……What do you think, catchy? Whatever, I’m a pragmatist, can’t help it 😂

3 torthuil { 08.13.17 at 4:18 pm }

Ok so I’m still thinking about this…..lol. Specifically I’m thinking about “you can achieve anything” being linked to achieving wealth and people’s approval (ie fame). Because that does often seem to be the subtext. For sure many people probably just want a decent ordinary life, but isn’t it always implied that an extraordinary one is better?

Last night Mr Turtle and I happened to watch “Americas Got Talent: the road to the finals”. About half the finalists had some sort of hard luck story: a singer born blind, another who lost her hearing as a young adult, a child singer of 9 who lost a lung and had a kidney transplant….those are the ones I remember. And they made a big deal of how each got a “golden buzzer,” how they were going to the finals, etc etc. It was all very heart warming…but I started to wonder about what I was seeing. None of those individuals needed the fame of a tv show or (presumably) a great deal of money to achieve what they had already achieved. I would assume they are already contributing a great deal of value to their families and communities and their own quality of life by what they do. Would winning a talent show or getting a million dollars or instant fame actually make their lives better? Maybe some had a concrete plan for the money…maybe they need it to pay medical bills or something (none of that was mentioned).

But, how do we really know that making a nine year old or a sixteen year old or anybody really instantly rich and notorious is actually going to improve their life? It could easily do the opposite (and often does). It’s a fantasy that’s being sold….. and I wonder how many will learn the hard lesson that their simple reality was much more valuable than the fantasy.

4 Inexplicably Missing { 08.13.17 at 7:13 pm }

Interesting things to think about. I think it comes to flexibility… in a way, any concept of living life that is adhered to too rigidly can have the potential to be very negative… even if the concept is at the face of it very positive like “you can do anything you set your mind to”. The truth is this may not be the case, e.g. if you had set your mind to being an olympic runner and then got in an accident and became paraplegic, sorry, not going to happen no matter how much you will it to. But what I think you can do, even in really bad circumstances that are beyond your control, is choose to be the kind of person you wish to be and to live in a way that is in accordance with what truly matters to you. That, I believe, is possible within us all… for me, that is my idea of doing what you set your mind to… but it’s a more flexible concept that adapts to life circumstances…

5 Mali { 08.13.17 at 11:15 pm }

I really hate the “you can achieve anything” philosophy (as you no doubt know, because I write on it regularly), because it is so untrue. If you’re short, you’re not going to be a star basketball/netball player, ino matter how hard you try. Some of us will never be geniuses, or we can’t (and will never be able to) carry a tune or have a beautiful voice, or we can’t draw, etc etc. My generation in New Zealand never grew up hearing this, and although it might have given me more confidence, I’m glad that I didn’t grow up thinking that I could achieve anything I wanted. Even as a kid, I knew that it wasn’t true. And I’ve never liked being lied to.

The philosophy that you can achieve anything doesn’t teach people to cope with rejection or disappointment, and doesn’t teach resilience.

I would prefer to hear something along the lines of “you won’t achieve that if you don’t try hard” which is a different thing altogether.

6 Lori Lavender Luz { 08.14.17 at 6:09 pm }

I haven’t had a chance to listen yet, but your post brings up some of the thoughts I was grappling with when I wrote the post “Tenacity” awhile back (http://lavenderluz.com/2016/04/tenacity.html) .

That was more about following your passion, and whether the element of talent should also be factored in as you pursue lofty goals. With anything goal-oriented, I do think there needs to be a grounding in reality, in understanding that there may be a ceiling about what’s possible, even if all the stars align (which, of course, we don’t wholly control).

7 Arnebya { 08.15.17 at 12:06 pm }

I think we have to remember to temper the “anything” with reality. You can try and not get what you want. I thought I’d be in a better financial and professional position than I am right now. I’m not. It’s distressing. But to give up? That’s not an option (while not dissing mental illness that can’t quite parse other options). Reevaluate. Change some things. That’s what needs to be stressed to kids: you’re not limited to the amount of opportunities, but remember that what you originally desire might not work out. Have a backup plan and know that not getting what you want happens often. It’s not always fault of not trying hard enough; sometimes it’s simply destiny (or, more basic, timing).

We need to teach actionable ways of dealing with letdowns.

8 dubliner in deutschland { 08.25.17 at 11:29 am }

oh yeah I agree that the idea that anyone can achieve anything if they just try hard enough is not a good message to spread! The fact is not everyone can be great at something no matter how had they try. Many people will just be average. Sometimes you need to be realistic about goals. And in the infertility land it’s a dangerous message because you feel like you have failed when it is out of your hands

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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