Saturday, September 6, 2014

‘Yes I can, yes I can.’ ‘No you can’t.’

‘Anything is possible.’
‘You can be anything you want to be.’

No it isn’t.
No you can’t.

With the best will in the world, parents, teachers and society in general have repeated these propositions down the years. Set your mind to it, work hard, and the world is your oyster. You can achieve anything. No you can’t. At least, most of us won’t and can’t.

Of course there are people in the world who do achieve great things, often from very small beginnings. We hear about these people. We admire them. We make them our role models. Of course we do. It’s right that we should. Unfortunately, what we don’t hear about are those who set their mind to it, work hard... and fail. For every inspirational success story there are probably 999 failure stories. Perhaps we should add a few nines to this. These stories don’t quite make the news.

Not everyone has the same opportunities, and not everyone has the same innate abilities. I am going to be better at some things than others. Part of the path to success is first of all to identify our available opportunities and to work within our limitations. This does not mean that we are stuck in some kind predetermined class or caste system. Many of us will break out. There will be opportunities to expand our opportunities. But, while the sky might not be the limit, there are limitations.

Unfortunately the pervading attitude that everything is possible has created four difficulties for people today. First, it has created unrealistic expectations. There is only so much room at the top. Jobs are a resource, and there are simply not enough of the ‘best’ jobs to go round. It would be an absurd world in which everyone strived to emulate Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, in which everyone wanted to be a ‘pop idol’ or a brain surgeon or a corporate lawyer. Then, within each of these ‘top’ professions, there is only limited room at the very top. The success of some at achieving this position will inevitably be on the back of the failure of many, many others to do so.

The second thing we have done is create an unrelenting burden of competition for these top positions within these top jobs. The economic world sees competition as an unqualified good. It isn’t. It borrows this concept from evolutionary theory, in which the fittest survive. Supposedly, competition produces the ‘best’ people for the job. This is nothing more than ideological claptrap. Were I inclined to be less polite I might invoke bovine excrement at this point. Unfortunately, those who fill the best positions in the best fields do not necessarily reach this position on merit. It would, perhaps, be rather cynical to suggest that they rarely do. In nature, competition is often avoided. While some animals fight, and fight to the death, most avoid such confrontations after a symbolic encounter. Let me see. As a lioness I can fight that lioness for her prey, or I can move over to the next patch of savannah. But there will never be many lionesses, in any case. There are always only a few positions available at the top of the food chain. And, in general, gazelles don’t aspire to become lionesses.

The third thing we have done is create this hierarchy of jobs in the first place. We have achieved this by both social and economic means. I can understand why jobs which require longer and more specialised training tend to result in a higher income, but I wonder if the income differentials that actually exist are justified. For some time I worked with people with disabilities. This was hard work, physically and psychologically. I was required to undertake some very unpleasant tasks... for the minimum wage. It would be hardly surprising if I were to be a little resentful of another profession which charges the minimum wage each thirty seconds or less. I think a strong social argument could be mounted to the effect that the work of a disability support worker is more valuable than that of most solicitors or CEOs. But our society shows little evidence of valuing such work, beyond the occasional word of praise: ‘Oh, I so admire you for the work you do. Here’s a ribbon for your contribution to society.’ We have made some jobs seem more important or more attractive than others, often with little justification.

The fourth difficulty we have created with our shallow platitudes is in failing to teach people how to deal with failure and disappointment. These are all but inevitable. It doesn’t mean you give up. It doesn’t mean you sink into the abyss. It doesn’t even mean you have to settle for less; because we first have to unlearn the lesson that, if I don’t become the number one box office star and win two Oscars by the time I’m twenty-five, I’m settling for less. Becoming a teacher is ‘less’... How exactly? Becoming a carpenter, a sales assistant, a road sweeper... Who has convinced you and me that these are less? It really depends on the value system we adopt, doesn’t it? Is our current hierarchy of jobs the only one, or even the best one? I will fail at some things. I won’t be a very good sculptor or shepherd or disability support worker. I will probably fail at even more important things, such as being a good friend or a good partner or a good human being. Failure is a valuable part of life.

The important thing is whether, when I fail, I am willing to get up, dust myself off and try something else, perhaps even something ‘less’. Positive thinking and a positive attitude is not the sheer act of will power that some people seem to preach: ‘If you believe you will succeed, you will!’ If you don’t succeed it must be because you didn’t try hard enough or believe deeply enough. I smell manure again. Real positive thinking and a positive attitude means being able to accept my limitations and my failings, without being totally destroyed by them. It means being ready and willing to give something else a go.

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