As a kid, I kept waiting to become somebody else. It couldn’t be me that would graduate. That would go to college. I wasn’t that person. It wasn’t that I wasn’t capable of studying — I was a good student and loved school, at least until fifth grade. It wasn’t that I was sick. I was fine. But the part of me that felt “me” — that thought up games and read stories and wrote them — had nothing to do with degrees, bills or expectations. I kept waiting to divide, and send autopilot me forward to jump through life’s hoops, while real me hung back and did what mattered.
As a college student, I was still waiting to retreat to the backseat of my life. Everyone was so full of ideas of who I should be — professors saying I should study this or that; parents hoping I might study something a little more lucrative. Graduate school was the same — “study what I do, only slightly different, so you don’t impinge on my topic!” I wanted their attention and their accolades, so I complied. I studied what I was told to, with only slight adjustments to suit my fancy. I just wanted them to like me. When I did what they thought I should, I was rewarded with their affection, and I was content. Until they drifted off and away, impelled by their own lives elsewhere. So there I sat, with all this knowledge I’d acquired to impress them, and they were gone.
Working life, same thing. I had no interest in this last degree I took as part of my job. I took it because my boss said I’d be good at it. I don’t know if I am or not. I thought was, but then everyone who said so left, and not many notice me anymore. I’m 30 now. It’s probably time to stop waiting to divide myself, one public version trotted out to do the boring things expected of adults, one private version reserved for the things I always found value in. I should probably resign myself to what I do, and that I’m the one having to do it, as one entity. It is the time of life to become introspective and depressed, our culture tells us. Sometimes gently, sometimes not.
Except…I’m not depressed. I never stopped doing any of the things I cared about. I just stopped talking about them. The older you get, the more careful you have to be about revealing the things you love to others. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing them. I always worried I would be a bad example to others; that people would hold me up as a cautionary tale. “Don’t become a boring adult like she did!” While it’s true that I would now tell younger me “hey, maybe don’t spend years obtaining a graduate degree in a field which doesn’t move you,” I’d also temper that advice with the acknowledgment that that graduate degree was free (they both were), obtained through fellowships only granted to me, I assume, because I bothered to do all the other boring things like show up and study and get enough sleep to be productive. Etc. etc. And that the stipend it granted me as I obtained it allowed me to subsist through the worst financial crisis to date in my lifetime.
And that…I don’t know. I traveled the world and chose where to feel home was. In this, I didn’t wait for someone to praise me for it, or tell me it was a good idea. (Often they said the opposite, ha.) I chose the people (and, sure, animals) in my life, and their permanence to the extent that I can influence that. Maybe I’m not such a cautionary tale.
A group of us talk a lot about the messages we received about 90s kids, re: the future. I don’t think it’s sensible to blame the well-intentioned media message of “you can do anything! reach for the stars!” for millennial angst. Messages written in bubble letters on your second-grade classroom bulletin board are not responsible for the sum of the decades that follow. But all the same, there may have been some unrealistic expectations set. Not so much re: the heights to which you might reach, but the heights to which you were supposed to aspire.
We were supposed to want to be great. To fix everything in one fell generational swoop. That is a fine (if necessarily unattainable) goal for a generation, but not for an individual. You can’t be the doctor who cures cancer AND the astronaut who saves the space station AND the rehabilitator of gorillas AND the guy who speaks 100 languages. But those were the goals that were lauded. Those were the goals that were held up as worth aiming for. Such goals were always accompanied by superlatives. The best, the brightest, the most. The most everything. But that’s a terrible goal. There will be nothing of you left, if you spread yourself so thin.
That, I think, is the real hiccup of the (again, extremely well-intentioned!) messages broadcast to kids in the 90s. We may be able to reach the stars, sure, with enough work. But it shouldn’t be our goal to fling ourselves toward all of them — to stab our flag into every boiling mass of rock and gas out there and claim it as our own. To obtain — to demand! — every outcome.
No. Pick one. Let the rest fall aside. You don’t have to be the best and the brightest at everything. You don’t even — and I suppose this is where the originators of those heartfelt messages might balk the most — have to be the best and the brightest at anything. Your value is in no way dependent upon how you measure up to others, intellectually, financially or otherwise. Maybe in thinking as much I am too much the 90s kid still: the shows were just as fond, after all, of telling us how special and unique we all were. But, gooey good feeling aside, they have a point. Doing what you love while still managing to make enough to eat and obtain health care and shelter isn’t settling. It isn’t a cautionary tale. It means you’ve made it. You found one goddamn star and called it home.
Now take good care of your humble rock pirouetting through the galaxy, and try not to fuck things up for anyone else along the way.