It’s time again I addressed a number of commonplace beliefs held in the United States which, while they often sound great in sound bites, are almost always based on flawed reasoning. I call these beliefs “American myths.”
And here is the sound bite that echoed around when President Obama addressed the nation’s students on Sept. 14th, 2010:
Nobody gets to write your destiny but you. Your future is in your hands. Your life is what you make of it. And nothing — absolutely nothing — is beyond your reach, so long as you’re willing to dream big, so long as you’re willing to work hard. So long as you’re willing to stay focused on your education, there is not a single thing that any of you cannot accomplish, not a single thing. I believe that.
Pres. Obama says that if you have a dream, you can achieve it through hard work and study. On a simplistic level, it sure sounds good and conveys a wonderful message of hard work and education to students. But in reality, it’s not true. Telling kids that “nothing — absolutely nothing — is beyond your reach” with the panacea of hard work is actually doing some of them a disservice. Not all human beings possess the gifts and talents necessary to achieve equally well in any field. While hard work will certainly help the students succeed in their goals, hard work and education alone will not make “nothing — absolutely nothing” beyond their reach. Some goals require physical and mental abilities far beyond that which studying and hard work can provide.
You agree with Pres. Obama and don’t believe me? Fine. If I study and work really hard, will I ever succeed in flying F-22s as a fighter pilot for the Air Force? Nope. I’m too old to successfully compete with fighter pilot hopefuls two decades my junior, and my imperfect eyesight also disqualifies me. Hard work and study will not succeed in landing me that job.
Likewise, my almost 14-year-old niece will probably never become an Olympic-level gymnast, even if she puts in 18-hour days of training. She certainly could improve whatever natural ability she has, but she doesn’t have the right body type to be a world-class gymnast, and she would be starting far too late. Looking at the U.S. women’s gymnastic team who won the team silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, I notice all the team members started studying gymnastics or dance by age 4 or earlier, so they were able to be world-class a decade later because of their hard work. But starting at age 14 is just too late.
My mother-in-law once taught a student with an IQ of 85. He once told her that he wanted to be a teacher when he grew up, but his low native intelligence made that impossible. No amount of studying would bring his IQ up to average. Another guy I met told me how he was studying to become a doctor, but after taking Biology 101 for the third time, he still only managed to scrape up a C. Neither student had the mental candlepower sufficient to make his worthy goal a reality. Hard work and education will take these two only so far, but some things are just beyond their reach.
And then there’s this interesting poll by Marist:
Nearly one-third of U.S. residents — 32% — say they would like to be an actor or an actress. Following closely behind are 29% who dream of becoming a professional athlete. 13% report they would like to list 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as their working address and be President of the United States. An additional 13% say they could see themselves as a rock star. 13% are unsure.
So hard work and education will make 32% of Americans into successful actors? Will hard work and education make the 29% who want to become professional athletes successful? Will the 13% who answered that they wanted to become President all succeed with just hard work and education? It should be pretty obvious that hard work and education, while very important, are not sufficient to place “nothing — absolutely nothing” beyond their reach. Certain physical and mental qualities, age, luck, and other assorted issues or events may be critical necessities in achieving some dreams.
Sure, it sounds great to tell school kids that they can succeed at anything they wish if only they work hard enough to get it. But reality shows us that success comes from more than just desire and study. Physical and mental abilities are important. Kids may dream about becoming astronauts, but unless they have the physical and mental capabilities as well as the desire and hard work — not to mention some kind of working space program when they’re adults — it’s not going to happen. And that’s why I label this idea as one of America’s myths.