If I can do anything, why am I doing this?

There used to be a commercial that featured babies dressed up with various career-related props, a stethoscope, airline pilot’s hat, things like that. I can’t recall what it was selling, but gist of the message was that anyone can do anything. Now who can argue with a message that positive? Who’d even want to?

Anyone can do anything? Let’s explore that premise with a hypothetical situation. First, conjure up in your mind the dumbest person you know. If you’re one of those people who claim never to have met a dumb person, then make it the least smart person you know. If you know two people, then one has to be smarter than the other. You can do it. (If you really don’t know any dumb people then let me know. I have a list.)

Get a good picture of that person in your mind. Now imagine you’ve been in an accident. Cars are flung across the highway and you’re lying there, watching everything happen as if it’s a dream. They land a helicopter, it’s a bad accident, and load you into it. Fly you to the trauma center. Land, and pull you off the helicopter and start rolling you down the hall. Your stretcher’s surrounded by people running along with it barking commands. They stick a mask over your mouth and everything starts to go dim. The last thing you see before going out is that person you thought of in the previous paragraph. He or she leans over you, gloved hands in the air, and says, “Don’t worry. I’ve got everything under control.” Fade to black.

Do you really want that person believing he can be a brain surgeon? Do you want the medical profession believing it? Now don’t get me wrong. I’m in my mid-fifties and still trying to be a writer so I’m a striver myself and all for encouraging other people to do the same. If I weren’t trying to accomplish something it would be hard for me to think there was much of a point to life. My issue with the message that anyone can do anything is that it sets people, especially young people, up to see the world unrealistically. It’s like the commencement speaker who says following your dream is the path to success. It can be, but it all depends on how you define success. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were able to follow their dream (At least I assume so. We travel, travelled in Jobs’s case, in different circles.) and become rich. For most of us though, life is about compromise.

If you believe you can do anything and decide to be a major league baseball player, you are almost certain to fail. So what does the baby commercial have to say to those people? You didn’t try hard enough? You should have picked parents with better genes? Does not being able to play major league baseball somehow devalue you?

I always wanted to be a writer. (Actually for a while I wanted to be a race car driver but that avenue isn’t really open to people with my reflexes. I then wanted to be a naval officer, but discovered that the Navy isn’t partial to people with extremely bad attitudes.) I made half-hearted attempts at writing when I was young and considered majoring in journalism. But the fact is that I wanted not to be poor more than I wanted to be a writer. (I’d tried being poor, but to be honest didn’t take to it with the enthusiasm the Bible suggests I should’ve. An obvious character defect.) Somewhere along the line I realized that being a writer was a pretty high risk ticket to being able to support myself. So I went to school, got a Ph.D., and spent my life doing things that I didn’t really dislike, but certainly weren’t what I wanted to be doing.

On the other hand I’ve managed to have and support a great family. I’ve been able to spend an idiotic amount of money and time the last fifteen years or so restoring an old car (which isn’t nearly finished), and with the advent of self-publishing I’ve started writing again. I’ve have finished four novels, and am working on a fifth. I really enjoy doing it, and am at the point where I’ve realized I’ll continue even if no one else ever reads them. (Almost no one. I have some faithful readers. I can count them on the fingers of one hand.)

So do I think I got it right? (or Write? haha. Pretty good huh?) Not exactly. I don’t think there’s any abstract right or wrong to how an individual person spends his or her life. I’m very happy. In fact I can’t imagine being happier. Maybe if I’d tried to be a writer from the beginning I would’ve been, but I have no desire to go back and find out. From where I sit now there’s a lot more downside than upside.

So what I don’t like about that commercial and those commencement speeches is what I don’t like about most of the over-simplified, judgmental, statements people make. Nobody can do anything they want. Steven Hawking can’t play shortstop and Andre the Giant was never going to win a Nobel Prize in physics. But everyone can figure out what has the best chance to make him or her happy and go for that. If you’re brave enough to follow a dream and are willing to accept the financial sacrifices that likely go along with it, then great. I know people like that and admire them. If you decide to do something you don’t like so much because it’ll give you the freedom to use your free time to pursue what you love, then that’s great too.

My only advice is to put the time and effort into figuring which is best for you. There are more than enough miserable people in the world already. No point in adding any more.

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