The myth that you can do anything

7 Dec

One of the most prominent myths in the pantheon of American mythology is that you can do anything you want if you set your mind to it. We hear this over and over again. It’s a reinforced theme in movies and examples are trotted out on Oprah for all to see. At the heart of this myth is the idea that there is enough social and economic mobility for you to go from zero to president.

I think this might have been true in Americas past, but no longer. With the current state of the economy, millions out of work (myself included), and an entire generation of college graduates who will be indentured servants for the rest of their lives, paying off massive college debt while working for years at McDonald’s, one could say I’m rather cynical about this idea that you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it.

You see, I feel that in order to attain the very top positions in our society, president, chairman on the joint chiefs of staff, senator, surgeon, astronaut, CEO of a major corporation, etc, you need to be either groomed for the job, or extremely lucky. It goes back to that old world mentality of being stuck with whatever class you’re born into and it’s infuriating.

Most people like to believe that through hard work you can achieve anything. While hard work is important, I feel this view is naive. Billions of people around the world work very hard at their jobs for years and never get anywhere. You can join the military as an enlisted person and work hard for decades, yet never make it to officer; something a college grad can go into officer school for and come out instantly ahead of anything you might achieve.  There are plenty of entrepreneurs that slave away over their business, only to have it fail. Hard work is no guarentee that you’ll be the next Google.

If you’re a nobody and want one of those top positions, you need to know exactly what you want to do with you life by age 12, and work with unrelenting drive to achieve it. Even then there is no guarantee that with your 4.0 and stellar SAT scores that you’ll get into Harvard. This is a form of self grooming, but it requires a focus that almost nobody has. How many people honestly knew what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives when they were 12? (If you start too late in your teens, you won’t have the prodigy credentials needed to get anywhere) I had a rough idea when I started college, but by that time I was 18 and despite all my hard work, my interests shifted my senior year.

I’ll be 23 next month and with a worthless college degree my current options are limited to McDonald’s. I would love to be an astronaut but I can’t. I didn’t have stellar high school grades, I didn’t have the SAT scores needed to get me into one of the top college, I didn’t major in the right subject, and I don’t have any military pilot backgrounds. Even if I tried to go back to school, buried myself in debt, and worked to the point of exhaustion, I’d never make it. To get picked is a matter of luck and grooming. In order to get there I would have had to start at age 12.

Despite the fact that you can’t be anything you want to be, that you’re dealt a hand of cards when you’re born, we as a society insist on perpetuating this myth. We love “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” stories. I think we suffer from a mass confirmation bias when it comes to this stuff. We put it in movies, highlight it on talk shows, and write books about people who go from zero to hero. In reality you can work till you die and still be a zero, unless you’re either groomed from birth for the job, or extremely extremely lucky.

6 Responses to “The myth that you can do anything”

  1. ashleyfmiller December 7, 2010 at 4:49 pm #

    This is completely true. The thing is it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. You can screw up a connection, but if you don’t have any connections to begin with, they’re very difficult to get. Every single job and internship I’ve ever gotten has been because I knew someone involved in the hiring process. The only things I’ve ever gotten solely from merit were scholastic.

  2. godlesspaladin December 7, 2010 at 5:08 pm #

    That’s very true. I’m super depressed because when I moved down here to SC I lost all my connections. I had worked hard building them to become an archaeologist in college, but now that I’ve moved away from those people and am no actively seeking that career, I’m shafted. My dad’s tried to help with his business connections, but nothing’s worked, and I don’t want a job as a prison guard with the SCDC.

  3. Puddingpie December 9, 2010 at 1:02 am #

    Have you considered a graduate program in geographic information systems? Because an undergraduate degree in archaeology is sure as hell relevant to that. I don’t know if it was the same for you, but I’ve heard people that went to field school say they picked up surveying skills there, which I think would also be looked upon favorably for entering a GIS grad program. From there, you could go into working with remote sensing for satellites and space probes, or apply to the Air Force officer training school, become a military pilot, and then an astronaut? 😉

    I have no idea. It sounds as plausible as half the things I’ve heard people do with their archaeology degrees, like practice law and get MBAs. Chase unicorns and fart rainbows.

    Good luck with your search, man. Live the dream.

  4. godlesspaladin December 9, 2010 at 1:22 am #

    Unfortunately my degree is just in history, and I only did archaeology extracurriculars. I also only touched surveying equipment once, and that was to map a small field. I’ve never had a formal class in archaeology outside of those two field schools. As for the pilot thing, my eyesight is crap which would eliminate me right away. 😦

    GIS does sound interesting though. I’ll look into it.

  5. Puddingpie December 9, 2010 at 6:27 pm #

    Surveying once is more than I’ve ever done. I still think it’s pretty awesome you got to do all that.

    Oh! I found out after I posted that, besides GIS grad programs, there are GIS certificates that you can do at community college too. It’s a much more economical option, and apparently many employers care more about the technical skills than the piece of paper. You’d have to ask around.

  6. teo December 9, 2010 at 7:05 pm #

    I just have to disagree.
    Although it’s true that hard work will not guaranteed take you where you want, it’s not true that it will guaranteed not take you there. Hard work is definitely at least the third option next to luck and being groomed.
    That myth is useful, people work hard because of it, it keeps our economy together – we should not destroy it. And it’s more or less still true – there are stories, true stories, luck happens, hard work pays off sometimes. Not always. That’s why it’s not a rule, but a myth.

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