American singer and songwriter Lionel Richie reminds us in his song “Easy” about a universal truth that, unfortunately, too many talented people ignore to their detriment. Lionel croons “Why in the world would anybody put chains on me? I’ve paid my dues to make it. Everybody wants me to be, what they want me to be. I’m not happy when I try to fake it!”
From the time that we are toddlers, our parents start making grandiose plans for us. They try to project their unfulfilled dreams onto us. According to them, we have to pursue careers that remunerate us handsomely if we want to be successful in this world. Careers as physicians, doctors, or engineers are paramount on their lists.
But missing from their well-intentioned recommendations is the lack of consideration given for what we truly want, what we are good at, what move us to be passionate and feel alive in this world. Whereas money is important to some individuals, different drives motivate others. For example, some individuals are happy pursuing degrees in the humanities and music because these are the areas that they are gifted at. Others are interested in making a difference with the less fortunate. And some have leadership talents that lead them to fight injustices and organize the less talented into a fighting force.
One must exercise extreme caution by not telling those who seek our advice what they should or should not become professionally. Those giving advice are usually wrong in assessing the talents or lack of them in others. And if followed, their wrongful advice usually turns these individuals into failures, or unfulfilled and very unhappy individuals.
For example, how often have you seen parents who are physicians force their kids into careers in the medical profession? They assume that their children must have inherited an aptitude for science. But, this assumption flies in the face of the laws of inheritance of Gregor Mendel. One of the key precepts of Mendel’s theories is “that a trait may not show up in an individual but can still be passed on to the next generation.” Therefore, an aptitude in science may be inherited by a grandson. To steer a son or a daughter into a career in the sciences in which he/she has zero aptitude would be a disaster. It would also be unfair to the individual.
And, yet, there are others who want us to be what they want us to be for their own selfish reasons.
During my high-school years, I worked innumerable jobs to pay for my college education – from paperboy, to dishwasher, to office cleaner of federal buildings. One of the jobs that I least liked was that of short-order cook at a fast-food joint. My reason for not liking this job was that cooking has never been one of my assets. And, yet, when I approached my supervisor to tell her that I would not be coming back because I would be starting college in the fall, I was surprised by her response. In a very serious tone, she indicated that not everyone was suited to go to college; that there were many individuals who had very successful careers without having a college degree. In other words, she was telling me that I should have remained a short-order cook for the rest of my life.
But, to be fair, what the manager at the fast-food joint told me was partially true. Bill Gates, of Microsoft fame, dropped out from Harvard University and did not graduate from college. Michael Dell, the founder and CEO of Dell, Inc., dropped out of college at 19. Andrew Jackson, is most-known for being the 6th president of the United States, but was also a military governor, Army commander, an attorney, and a congressman – all without ever going to college. Steven Spielberg, the famous movie director and producer, was denied acceptance to film school and dropped out of California State University in Long Beach. But, I am not as talented as any of these individuals, and I never wavered from going to college and graduate school. This manager was willing to ruin my dreams and aspirations simply because there was a labor shortage that year, and I was the solution to her dilemma. Thank, God, that I ignored her advice!
And, then, there are the stories of Hispanic luminaries. Upon receiving a postcard from Princeton University with an X in a square indicating that admission was likely, Sonia Sotomayor shared the great news with others whom she thought would share her excitement. And she found out an important lesson in life that not everyone has your best interest at heart. Her high school guidance counselor had suggested previously some Catholic colleges that she thought suited Sonia best, but she had replied “I want(ed) to apply to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Stanford.” Shortly after, the school nurse approached her about the notice from Princeton, with this question: “Well, can you explain to me how you got a ‘likely’ and the two top-ranking girls in the school only got a ‘possible’?” Sonia responded to the insolent question by citing her accomplishments on the school’s forensic team and her working part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer. “I may be ranked below them, but I’m still in the top ten, and I do more than the others.” Obviously, the high school and guidance counselor did not think that this “wise Latina” would succeed in an Ivy League university, or worse, that minority students were unworthy of these educational institutions. And, yet, Sonia proved that she was ready to attend the best universities in the Nation. She graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, was selected to Phi Beta Kappa, earned the University’s Pyne Honor Prize — a singular honor awarded to a senior who has most clearly manifested excellent scholarship, strength of character and effective leadership — graduated from Yale Law School, and became the first Hispanic to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
And there are other stories of unfulfilled dreams that could have had a happier ending. Malcolm X graduated at the top of his junior high school class. When he confided to one of his favorite teachers that his dream was to become a lawyer, she advised him against it. She indicated that pursuing a legal career was “no realistic goal for a n…..” Malcolm lost interest in school and dropped out. And the world lost a potential brilliant mind and a legal scholar. And Malcolm may still be alive today if he had ignored his teacher’s suggestion. We should all listen to the advice given by American poet Robert Frost, “Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” We should all listen to our inner selves when pursuing careers that make us feel alive in a world surrounded by mediocrity! The road less traveled is the one that will enable us to make a positive difference in others.