The title of my column last week was Bullish Life: Some Dreams Are Stupid.
Not all of them, of course. And, other than a few obviously very noble dreams (free schools for Afghanistan!) or obviously very terrible dreams (Christian rock band entitled “Heteros Only”!), far be it from me to tell which ones are stupid.
My point is that nothing is sacrosanct just because it’s someone’s “dream.” Dreams are subject to critical inquiry just like everything else.
So, I was interested in this comment by BG:
I’ve come to this site to read some of Jen’s articles since I’m at somewhat of a crossroads in my life – nearing 30, the “dream” I am currently pursuing, is beginning to scare me as far as will it ever actually happen, and will I have to sacrifice too much (time with my family, having my own family) to reach it. The thing is – my dream IS attainable. I’m good. I’m really good. This isn’t ego talking, I truly believe I was meant to be entertaining in the way that I am. So what about people like me, people who have all that it DOES take to achieve those seemingly impossible goals? It’s not so black and white as giving up on that dream, when it actually seems achievable.
What if your dreams are awesome and achievable? Great! Maybe you are a special snowflake.
My best friend Molly Crabapple is a special snowflake, meaning that she makes the art she wants to make, and enough people love it (and her) that her last Kickstarter raised nearly $65,000 in a couple of weeks — for a series of paintings about the financial crisis.
I can’t imagine what definition of “special snowflake” that wouldn’t fulfill. Also, I can tell you from personal experience that she shouldn’t “give up her dreams,” because she’s basically already achieved them by age 28 and also because she is completely unsuited for any kind of normal job whatsoever.
Molly also, when asked to speak to groups of young people, regularly tells the ones who “just want to draw” that they shouldn’t do art as a career because they will fail. I met Molly when she was 19, and her empire was already brewing — it involved copious amounts of networking and marketing and project management (all learnable), and that’s on top of drawing to the point of chronic carpal tunnel syndrome.
(See Bullish: Do You Belong In An Institution? for a question from a young, ADHD-fabulous fashion designer contemplating whether his snowflakehood could translate into actual money.)
Only Assholes Insist That Absolutely No One is Special
Towards the beginning, English teacher David McCullough, Jr. makes some weirdly off-topic remarks about weddings being entirely for brides and comprised of “unreasonable demands” on men — because, among other charges, men get no “identity-changing pronouncement.” As though women are really campaigning for that part? (Women have actually worked really hard to get laws passed against that part, which is why married women can get credit and buy property in their own names, which incidentally can be whatever names they want!) McCullough suggests that men would like to get married, if at all, “during halftime … on the way to the fridge.” What a charmer.
He then goes on to tell the graduates that, “Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. … But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”
Am I crazy in thinking that pretty much all good parents are “capable adults with other things to do,” and that feeding, teaching, and listening to your children is actually completely normal and also basically mandatory? What the hell is wrong with this guy? I don’t show up at his job and tell him he’s unsuited as an English teacher because he was once — like all babies — incontinent (and may someday be so again!). Your mom used to cut your sandwiches for you!
It gets better.
He points out that everyone is wearing the same graduation robe, and that everyone’s diploma — except for the name — is identical. Well, yes … but after the one-day graduation ceremony, some of those kids are going to good colleges, and some of them are going to end up working as home health aides, which is basically the only job for mere high school graduates that is reliably always hiring, because we will never run out of old people who need help in the bathroom. It’s also true that some of those graduates are decent people, and are some are sociopathic assholes. They’re wearing the same robes, so nothing anyone is or does means anything? Right.
That’s the thing about shuffling people into institutions and demanding total conformity — you can’t tell the talented and magnanimous and hardworking from anyone else trapped in a human body. Strip a bunch of prisoners naked and they all look silly and miserable, no matter how dignified and accomplished they were before. On Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, black prisoners were forced to wear shorts — other prisoners wore long pants — so as to make clear that those prisoners were “boys,” not men. “You people all look the same” has never been a worthwhile argument.
Furthermore, old people telling young people they have it too good is just trite. And it’s hardly true, considering how many of our forebears skated through high school and easily got full-time jobs that allowed them to own homes before the age of thirty. I have attended numerous Dartmouth alumni events in which the elderly graduates remark with some bafflement that, by today’s standards, they’d never have been accepted in the first place. I regularly am hired by, say, Cornell graduates, for the purpose of trying to get their kid into Cornell.
In fact, teenagers today — the ones aiming for top colleges — work really hard, harder than most adults do. How many hardworking adults do you know who succeed at 5+ different things every day, in 50-minute increments? That’s crazy. Calculus and French, both before 10am? Whose job requires them to be there at 7:30am, with severe penalties for being five minutes late? My high school experience involved packing another AP class into what would have been my lunch period, and instead living off Zip-loc bags of Chex, which I nibbled at between classes.
Today, I work hard, but I also get to do it in close proximity to an espresso machine and my own bathroom, and without my mother shouting at me to take out the trash or accompany her to the grocery store. (Nothing against my mom; I just think that if you don’t find the institution of childhood degrading, you lack a will to power.)
(See Bullish Life: A Day in the Life of Bullish, as well as last week’s Bullish: Successful People Are Up at the Crack of Dawn.)
Being Special Means You Get to Be With the Other Special People
McCullough follows up with some wonky math:
Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.
Um, great? Obviously, there aren’t 7,000 people exactly like you, but being one of 7,000 accomplished people in your field sounds pretty great. The world can easily accommodate 7,000 awesome videographers or activists or authors or people with amazing ideas who dedicate their lives to pursuing them. A friend of mine works in Ghana for Worldreader, which is using Kindles to bring books to African students — not our shitty old reference books shipped across an ocean, but up-to-date titles as well as books by African authors who, until now, lacked sizable audiences. If there were 7,000 more of my friend, I doubt he would complain. That sounds pretty great. If there were 6,999 more of me, we would hold our own TED conference (TEDJen!) and talk about teaching math to underprivileged kids and then we’d drink and quote Dorothy Parker and rue our nation’s lack of non-effeminate male burlesque dancers. But that’s just me (times 7,000).
Look, a lot of success in life is working yourself to the point that you think you will break your own spirit, and then achieving some milestone, and then taking it for granted and almost never mentioning it again. Now you’ve fulfilled the basic requirements for joining a more rarefied group of people. Now do it all again.
McCullough makes some good points later on (due to our society’s love of accolades — and undoubtedly the demands of the college admissions process — “building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans”), but overall, what a douchebag speech to make to a bunch of kids facing the toughest college admissions climate and job market ever, and that’s on top of all the acne and sexual confusion that kids have always had to deal with.
Specialness is Just Hard Work Over a Long Period of Time
When crusty old teachers want to lecture kids about not being special, well, let’s be clear: What do you mean by “special”? If you mean, “everyone else should throw fairy dust on the path before you as you walk,” then no one is special except for children being served by the Make a Wish Foundation.
There are other ways to be special. My version of special snowflakehood is something like, “By working hard and cleverly, you’re in line to make three times as much as most of your classmates, and since you’ve also invested time in all those awesome extracurricular activities and in reading books on a wide variety of topics, you will easily be able to think of ways to use your wealth and freedom to live a better life and leave the world better than you found it.”
This path is best begun young. Much like compound interest, everything you do as a young person has a much larger effect on your future success than you would think. Graduating from college in four years, by the age of about 22, is a good start. (The people I know who’ve let their bachelor’s degrees drag on longer usually let them drag on much longer — everyone I know who didn’t graduate at the “normal” time usually darted in and out of college until more like 30.) I didn’t discover the joys of alcohol, beaches, or summer until my late twenties. (See Bullish Life: Achieve Goals and Glory By Recreating Like a Total Fucking Badass.)
Similarly, as I wrote in Bullish Life: Bullish Turns Two, “your twenties are the high school of your forties.” There’s no reason to think that continually (but without rubbing people’s noses in it) working harder than everyone around you, even when they think you’re crazy, wouldn’t have the same effect.
As Tyler Durden (from Fight Club) said before blowing things up, “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all a part of the same compost pile.”
Sure, we’re decaying organic matter. Which I think makes it all the more impressive when we girdle up our decaying organic matter into a good wool suit, and — made more scintillating by a two or three fingers of a good scotch — out-clever our opponents, then go home and fuck and sleep on the best sheets Egyptian cotton can be crafted into.
Or, please watch a young, handsome Mister Rogers explaining slowly and clearly to Congress that everybody is actually kind of special, and that making sure children are clear about that helps them learn to manage anger and control their emotions so that the world contains fewer douchebags.
Originally published on TheGloss.