As I was trawling Facebook this morning, I ran across a post from Morgan Freeberg, proprietor of The Blog Nobody Reads (but which you should). It featured a woman complaining about her lack of immediate financial comfort following her choice to go $60K into debt pursuing a Master’s in Women’s Studies. Yeah, I know, but that’s not really the point this morning. What struck my imagination was a comment Morgan made down that thread:
When I was a boy, my uncles & aunts and much-older cousins would flail around trying to figure out small-talk they could make with a seven-year-old, and the fallback was to chat me up about “what do you want to be when you grow up” and there would somehow ensue some exchanges about astronauts, firemen, et al. I dunno if the average little girl had the same experience; I know it was de rigueur for boys. And I remember we’d start to discuss aptitude, without using that actual word unfortunately, when my grades tanked at school — but not before that, which would suggest to me that the other kids who didn’t have problems, didn’t have the same talk.
Now, I don’t do what we were talking about in those talks, but nevertheless I think they can still help a lot, in the sense that kids are robbed of something when they don’t have them.
Now, Morgan and I are of an age, I think, because I remember those talks as well. And in my case, one of the things I took away from them was the important fact that although I had certain obvious talents even as a kid, I also had limitations. For example, I remember saying to my folks one day, “I want to be an astronaut when I grow up.”
Dad shook his head. “Won’t work — you’ll be too big.” (The doctors had predicted I’d top out at 6′ 4″ and 250 pounds. Alas, I only overachieved in the second part.) He explained that space capsules were cramped spaces, not really designed for hulking brutes of the sort I was destined to become.
Likewise, when I suggested that I might like a career as a secret agent, he pointed out that spies (at least of the sort to which I was referring) generally require a degree of protective coloration not typically found in very large redheads of my personality type. I wouldn’t be able to blend in enough for such a gig.
When I was a teenager, my friends (both in Kentucky and back in Nashville) were musicians — many of them quite good. When I talked about pursuing a music major, my folks pointed out that while I was a competent drummer, I was never gonna be Joe Morello or Neil Peart, and that it might be good to be able to do other things. (Oddly, that proved to be liberating for me over the years. Once I realized that I was only competent and not star-quality, I was free to follow my passion for the music I love, rather than my passion for a career.)
These days, I suspect that parents who dropped this sort of truth on their kids would receive much tut-tutting, accusations of dream-crushing, and such. And I’ll admit, there was a certain amount of disappointment on my part, but I knew my dad loved me and wasn’t speaking from cruelty — he was simply telling the truth: Not everyone can do anything they might want. Instead, he said, you have to find the things that align with your abilities and your limitations and do those things as best you can. And by teaching me that lesson, he helped me find my way (after a false start or two) to what I do now. I’m grateful for that.
And I find myself wondering if there might be less frustration if more folks learned that lesson early on.
UPDATE: Morgan continues the discussion.