“You can be anything you want to be” — we hear and read this a lot: in the media, in the (Hollywood) movies, in “successful” people’s biographies. This phrase has become a motivational mantra for success.
I did not grow up with “you can be anything you want to be” kind of way of thinking. My parents’ philosophy was: “No, you can’t be anything you want to be”. They always reminded me to be very mindful of what my limitations were and what I was not good at. They also pushed me to be realistic and to be aware of inherent constraints built into a(n) (unjust & unequal) system. For my parents, even “good” was not a good enough reason. “You need to be twice or even thrice as good, and even then it does not mean you’d beat the system” they said. With that message in mind, my formula was to pursue what I was “pretty darn good” at, work hard and focus on it, with a hope to outsmart the system and, eventually, prevail. No, I don’t say that it is the most ideal way of thinking or parenting. If fact, they were pretty much dream killers. Fortunately, their formula worked for me. It was a workable survival kit for me, someone who was born as a baby girl to lower income parents of a double minority in a developing country. In the end, I managed to pursue my dreams, be everything I wanted myself to be, and proved my parents wrong.
Don’t get my wrong, I am not saying we should stop pursuing doing what we love. After all, like what I wrote elsewhere, I believe we all need to and can be the best version of ourselves (see “Who are you NOT to be brilliant“). However, we need to be clear and sensitive about unequal and unjust societal system we live in.
At the other end of the spectrum is the “you can be anything you want to be” doctrine which, at glance, sounds wonderful and positive. This might be true for those who are economically and socially privileged. For most, however, it stays a myth. In reality, especially for those at the bottom, climbing the steps of the socio-economic ladder remains an arduous or even impossible journey. For every “rags to riches” story are thousands of others who are trapped in low-wage jobs and poverty. The privileged can tell their kids that they can be anything they want, precisely because the privileges they were born into and the system that is postured to protect the privileged.
Oh, let me remind you one of the side effects of this “you can be anything you want to be” credo: the rise of self-entitled mediocre privileged individuals, including self-centered-politicians, greedy-unethical-CEOs, journalists-without-integrity, racist-low-quality-talk-show-hosts, and arrogant-but-mediocre-scholars, to name a few… and, don’t forget one more, the most unqualified presidential candidate in the history (of America). In this context, I am so thankful to my parents for not encouraging me to be one of the mediocre as***les ;D
Probably parents and teachers should start saying: you can be anything you want to be, only if …………….. (fill in with a long list of criteria ). And in the meantime, collectively we need to work in a pursuit of justice and equality in the world, so someday when we tell our children and grandchildren “you can be anything you want to be” we are inches closer to telling the truth.