As a millennial, I grew up in a culture of entitlement. Like most of my peers, I was told that as long as I worked hard I could become anything I wanted. According to our parents and teachers, each of us was special, unique, “gifted”. Yet if every child is supposedly so extraordinary, who is left over to be simply ordinary? That may sound harsh, but it goes to show that we’ve developed an impossible standard over the past few generations. “Mediocre” has morphed into a derogatory term. Average, standard performer, 50th percentile… all of it became a crisis to parents. A’s are no longer exceptional, but expected. The C “average” may as well be an F, leaving many a-disappointed-dad incredulous; “Only a 70% on that test, Timmy, you know your mother and I expect better”. My brother’s graduating class didn’t have a single 4.0 GPA out of some 400 graduating students… just four years later, a whopping 16! My school couldn’t pick a valedictorian because of a three-way tie in perfect academic records. But don’t worry, everyone deserves a participation medal.
What happened to the day when A’s and B’s on a report card were impressive? When C’s and D’s only caused parents to figure maybe their Timmy was better cut out for a vocation, and that “hell, saves us the college tuition.” Long gone are the days of reason… in the new generation, God forbid seeing the ominous F on an assignment much less a final grade. FAILURE — a reality of life that many children nowadays are erroneously taught they are immune to, especially when mom comes to the rescue at the parent-teacher meeting; “If my child failed, that only reflects a failure on the part of the instructor”. After all, no child left behind. Even when they sleep through class or copy a classmate’s homework every day or, perhaps worst of all, have their parents essentially complete the assignment for them.
Yes, every child is talented and special in his or her own way. Each individual has something unique to contribute and share with the world. But let’s face it, not every person will grow up to be extraordinary because such a concept literally cannot exist without ordinary, commonplace, typical people. To be defined as average should not be considered an insult, rather a broad category composed of many niches, specialties, and uniquely tailored purposes. Not everyone can derive the next advancement in quantum physics or compose a symphonic ballad; similarly, not everyone can weld a custom hydraulic fitting or efficiently harvest acreages of crops. An incredibly wide range of roles, regardless of perhaps seemingly menial, are crucial to societal progress and prosperity. In fact, many would argue that the jobs traditionally considered blue collar are the most indispensable. Skill and expertise abound across an infinite range of specialties, and our modern world relies on each as much as the other to function harmoniously.
Steering young and impressionable young adults to reflect on all their options does not mean society is leaving them behind; rather, it is enhancing each student’s opportunity to pursue a path which will leave them better suited for personal success. High-schoolers and even middle-schoolers today hear “college, college, college” endlessly. Instead of stressing higher education as a one-size-fits-all fast-track to success, a better approach is encouraging our children to find their niche and pursue their passions.
It shouldn’t matter what that passion is- athletics, construction, artistry, craftsmanship, public service, solving problems. Each of these endeavors require two common things for success: dedication to serving a purpose beyond one’s self, backed by passion and genuine hard work - blood, sweat and tears. That’s it, because success means something different for each individual. What can lead us astray is when we start confusing success with the “American Dream”, a concept as artificial as it is ubiquitous — the image of a happy family and a high-end salary, complete with a white picket fence.
When I finally made it to college, my father would tirelessly remind me that only an degree in a technical field or business administration would provide adequate return on the investment in the form of a suitable salary or powerful position. I recall him saying this as though it was an indisputable fact that those two factors, position and pay, were part and parcel of a successful career. Certainly, he had my best interests in mind. But what if I didn’t necessarily want to strive for fame or fortune? The people I saw who had both actually seemed more miserable than most.
A college education isn’t a prerequisite to personal success; nor is a high-paying salary or a fancy corner office. Personal success must be defined by each individual, and stands independent of IQ or GPA, or whether they flunked high school biology. Our parents, schools and communities must remember that rather than being feared, failure should be embraced for its role in helping a person to define themselves and their personal skill sets. Only then will we begin rebalancing society’s concept of success across all specialties, so that “unique” and “purpose” and “passion” become the buzzwords of our children’s generation.