You Aren’t Going To Change The World And That’s Okay

2010 February 5

Hate To Break It To You is a recurring feature wherein we dispense succinct home truths that everyone could benefit from facing up to, unpleasant as they may be.

Photo by giarose

Not everyone grows up to be Gandhi. Not all of us are meant to change the world and live capital L lives. There’s only so much paradigm-shifting talent, opportunity and luck available and you’re not a failure¬† just because you didn’t receive what you believe was your generationally-mandated portion of the above, although it’s easy to see why you might feel that way.

Those of us who grew up as part of the middle-class North American majority learned that we could be anything we wanted, but somewhere along the way, we got it twisted around in our heads that we had to be everything the world wanted/needed in order to be successful. Money wasn’t enough, nor was the love of family and friends, we wanted to matter, to make a difference, to prove ourselves, even if we couldn’t define exactly what this entailed. But we knew it was big, bigger than the lives we’re living now, bigger than our cubicle jobs, our weakness for reality tv and organic, fair trade espresso. You’re nobody until the Nobel committee comes calling. We’re not supposed to settle and settling has become anything less than being multi-tasking, globe-trotting, world-saving, well-paid, well-partnered prodigies. The desire not to hide our individual lights under a bushel is a laudable one, but not everyone is going to be a game changer. And there’s no shame or failure or inadequacy in working¬† an “ordinary” job, in leading a quiet life, in surrounding yourself with a handful of close friends and family. In fact, those are the lives most of us end up with, with the smarter of us realizing that they’re every bit as meaningful as the marquee existences we feel we ought to aspire to. There doesn’t need to be a higher purpose, a greater mandate, a pissing contest of who has more frequent flyer miles and a bigger LinkedIn network. It’s okay not to end up a shining star and it’s more than okay not to have ever wanted to be one in the first place. It’s okay to work at Whole Foods or be a stay-at-home dad or never finish your PhD thesis. Never owning a home doesn’t make you a failure, nor does buying one four doors down from your parents. Who the hell cares if you’ve never even heard of Herzog and that you like Bon Jovi and drink PBR without a trace of hipster irony? These aren’t moral failings, folks.

I’m absolutely not telling you to give up on your dreams, or jettison your idealism in favor of the “simple” life. Both are valid choices and they aren’t even mutually exclusive. What I am encouraging you to do is to stop living for your legacy and to take a moment to examine the implicit privilege in assuming the self-imposed middle-class Gen Y burden of “making the world a better place” out of a sense of duty instead of genuine altruism (which I’d never argue against, obviously). You’re the one choosing that yoke and you can choose to cast it off. Noblesse oblige, especially of the guilt-driven variety, is totally overrated.

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