This is a sad rant.
We start out our lives thinking we can do anything and we can be anything. Perhaps we even can be or do anything at this point. Our lives are clean slates, our destinies determined only by the spiraling series of disappointments and shortcomings that accompany us all the way to death.
Because, in the end, we’re all disappointed in ourselves. We’re never as great as we think we’ll be. Even those great humanitarians that do something wonderful and redefine history and essentially save us all still don’t believe they’ve really maxed out their potential. If they say they did, they’re lying. If we had done that one teensy little thing differently, maybe we would have become something great. Maybe if I didn’t pull that all-nighter watching Courage the Cowardly Dog reruns until six hours before my Honors Algebra 2 exam, I’d be at Harvard right now. Maybe if I had quit band in high school and focused more time on my writing, I’d have published a novel by now. I might have even won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In kindergarten, we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up on a regular basis. I have no idea why; maybe it was meant to instill ambition and motivation in us at an early age, or to inspire us to dream big, or just a conversation piece because what the hell else is there to ask a kindergartener? I wanted to be a doctor, writer, and president, all while having a hamster and a husband waiting for me at home at the end of each busy day. The point is, no one told us we couldn’t be those things, and we never once entertained the thought that we might not be good enough to do them. Even the weird kid that wanted to be an airplane had unwavering faith in himself.
Then we got older. Grades started being a thing. GPAs spawned out of the earth, and suddenly we had a convenient, numeric system to objectively quantify everyone’s potential to reach said dreams. At around the same time, maybe a bit later, money became a thing. Not only were we able to systematically evaluate our ability to reach a dream, but now we had to also worry about maintaining that dream once we got it. Sure, becoming an airplane is hard, but how are you going to make money once you are an airplane? How are you going to pay the bills and buy jet fuel and take care of the little regional jets that need braces and are going to be going into airplane college eventually?
So, we altered our course at bit. Instead of being a firefighter, I’m going to be a lawyer because they also help people and make more money and I kind of get good grades so I can do it. Yeah, I can do it. And I’m going to be the best lawyer out there. I’m going to defend scandalous celebrities and take down greedy corporations and put serial killers behind bars. And when I’m old and ready to retire, my legacy will live on through a reality TV show staring my over-privileged kids.
And then college applications were due. Yeah, no Harvard for me. No Stanford or MIT or Berkley or any of those other universities that all the successive people had gone to. So, we go to whatever school we can get into. It’s not our top choice because it’s never our top choice, but it’ll do. Einstein didn’t even go to college, right? (He totally did, but this tends to be a popular rumor.) So, we’ll be whatever major will earn us a lot of money while being a subject matter we’re passionate about. But this just becomes a major that will get us a job and we can kind of handle the course load for. And we hope that when we graduate we’ll go somewhere other than our parents’ house or under the bridge with that guy that dropped out to start his own band.
And now, some people are gearing up to head out into the workforce, and some of us are going to sit around continuing our education, which is really just stalling the clock until our time runs out.
I was in the Midwest this weekend as part of a recruiting weekend for a certain delicious grad school with a prestigious chemistry program. I thought I was all set in life because I had gotten accepted for this special weekend that I had to apply for. I figured that since they took me for this, I was actually qualified for the program, and I’d be sure to get in, and finally, for once in my life, I would be “good enough.”
Then I realized how difficult the grad program was to get into, and how embarrassingly unqualified I was compared to every other person in the group. They had all done multiple years of cutting-edge research, took every single advanced chemistry class there was to be taken, complete with labs, took examinations for every single acronym that the English alphabet can spew out, and were bffs with all the best faculty who were right now constructing beautiful iambic pentameter sonnets as their letters of recommendation.
Yeah, I won’t be making the cut.
I’m not going to be the chemist that finds the cure for cancer or solves the energy crisis or discovers the meaning of the universe. I’m just going to puddle away in some lab, eking out a living under the radar. My name won’t appear in textbooks or on plaques in museums or in the title of a mechanism for a chemical reaction. I’m just going to fade away, forgotten, just another waste of a carbon footprint dirtying the planet.
And that is okay.