Time to Challenge a Major American Delusion

In this country, we believe anyone can achieve whatever he wants. This idea is drummed into kids at every step. Interviews with people deemed successful spotlight this point of view. Whether you’re an athlete, an actor, businessperson, or a rancher, we tell ourselves this over and over. Anyone can become president. You can be successful in any career you choose.

NOT TRUE! And maybe it’s time to stop spouting this. What happens instead is those 99.99% of us who don’t rank number 1 in our goal or field of interest get discouraged, depressed, even suicidal.

Why not? Because of the three qualities essential to achievement, we have no control over two of them. Those two are:

  1. In-born, genetically determined talent. This can be for singing, art, intelligence, creativity, the correct body type, beauty, whatever. I happen to be extremely short and always have been. No matter how much I might want to be a star basketball player, my less-than-five-feet height never will permit it.

  2. Chance, luck, fortune. A caveman could never be a millionaire because he lived in a time that lacked money and big business. Even if you’re born into the right age, country and family, you still might never chance upon a situation that enables you to succeed in the way you hope. You might miss the exact connection, the right friend, the ideal situation to lead you up your chosen ladder.

The last essential quality an individual does have some control over: hard work.

What do people define as “success.” Articles and surveys report that many younger (and older!) people believe success is money, possessions, social media attention, position, fame. Many of us share these goals and dreams,

Let’s get serious. Hard work plays a big role in success. But it’s not the sole determiner. Time magazine in 2019 had an essay on parenting that urged adults to tell kids the truth—hard work doesn’t always pay off. (July 1, 2019; by Rachel Simmons) Why should we bother? Won’t this reality discourage the young?

No, not if we recognize that there are other things in life that make us successful. Friends, family, satisfaction with our achievements, passion for some activity, even simple acceptance of and joy in life around us. We’d probably have many more happy people and far fewer discontented, even suicidal ones.

Is Good Enough, Enough?

Comedian Pete Holmes has a bit in which he says if you lower your standards for success, you feel better about yourself.  Rather than beating yourself up for not getting ahead in your career or making enough money to buy that fancy car you have your eye on, achieve small goals.  He uses the example of going to dinner in a new friend’s house and finding the silverware drawer on the first try.  Yeah! You can be proud that you know the American way of housekeeping so well.

This approach makes a lot of sense.  Yesterday, I cleaned half a bathroom. Today already I’ve flossed and brushed my teeth well before I had to run out the door.  Success!  My to-do list may be hundreds of items long, and I know from experience I can’t possibly complete ten percent today.  But I can delight in my immediate accomplishments.

Sometimes it seems we aim our sights so high that we set ourselves up for failure. Following close on the heels of failure are self-doubt, uncertainty, insecurity.  Then we don’t like ourselves much.  We often go through the same exercise for our partners and children, too, making them miserable in the process as well as ourselves.

I remember in high school and college every person was going to achieve some momentous feat.  One was going to be a surgeon; another, president of the US.  Several planned to take over the world of finance and become billionaires at the same time.  Too numerous to count were the best-selling authors, the world-famous performers, the wildly innovative artists sure to arise.  My personal (unachieved) goal was to lose 40 pounds before I ever returned for a high school reunion.

How much more fulfilling if my aims are simply to reduce the stack of bedside reading by a magazine or two, water my houseplants before they die, write a decent paragraph each day.  The ineluctable* reality—if good enough is enough, I just may enjoy my life more.

 *Ineluctable: inescapable, inevitable, unavoidable