Our parents told us we could be anything. And our teachers. And our coaches. They all promised us that if we tried a little harder, put in a little more work, we could be something special. They assured us that we were innately special, and all we needed was to develop that potential.
Yet, our specialness was not specific—it applied to whatever we might want to do. “Follow your dreams,” we were told. “Do what you love—the rest will follow.” They encouraged us to choose our electives based on interest, to choose our majors based on passion. They prodded us to go faster and farther not by debasing us and saying we weren’t good enough, but by promising that if we improved just a little more, we could maybe prove our specialness.
We were told over and over again that we were smart. Talented. We were told we had potential, were perhaps destined for greatness. And that is what we believed. We believed if we put in enough effort, we would get somewhere.
We thought that our successes would grow exponentially: our hard work to “be someone” in high school would transfer to “being someone” in college. Then, if we worked hard in college, we would be hired for the job we wanted. When we worked hard at that job, we would then be recognized, and we would continue to achieve because we had potential to be superior, to be important and known. If we just worked hard enough, we would make a difference. We would matter.
The reality is that the further into adulthood we venture, the bigger the world gets. We might be someone in high school. We might be someone in college. We might even be someone at our companies. But what we didn’t realize until we made it out on your own, with no parents and teachers and coaches to reassure us that we are special, is that we are replaceable.
When we graduated high school, those niches we filled were filled by someone else. Maybe we were the smartest, or the prettiest, or the funniest. Maybe we were the most athletic or the best public speaker. But those superlatives are in every yearbook, with new faces under the title each year. Our faces are long gone.
When we graduated college, those papers we wrote were filed away with thousands of papers from thousands of students who came before us, and will be covered with thousands of papers from students who will come after us.
And now here we are: big, important Adults in the big grown-up workforce. Maybe we’re good at our jobs; maybe we’re excellent. Some of us might be promoted quickly, and our bosses might love us. We work hard, so why wouldn’t they love us?
Still, the undeniable truth is that we are one cog out of hundreds, thousands that comprise the huge, grinding gears of a company. We fit a certain mold. We are replaceable. The company doesn’t care about our “specialness.” Maybe, when we are gone, a few coworkers will miss us, but not for the outstanding, irreplaceable work we did. Not for the hundreds of hours we spent in front of a computer monitor, typing at a keyboard and clicking a mouse. No one will miss us for that.
We grow up thinking that we will do something lasting, something that matters. We grow up thinking we will do something that makes others proud. We think we will make ourselves proud. But then we are confronted with the harsh reality that is adulthood, with its health insurance and its mortgages, its rent checks and its credit card payments. We find out that the only people who are remembered are the Steve Jobs and Michael Phelps of the world, and even their legacies fade once someone comes along and invents something better or sets the new world record.
So we are left wondering, what was it that made us so special? Were we just surrounded by a bunch of inferior people up until now? Were our parents and teachers and coaches completely blind? Are we now failing to live up to our childhood potential, or are we finally recognizing that no such potential existed in the first place?
And of course, the ultimate question: if we don’t achieve anything special, can we still be happy?