A tearful award winner stands at a podium giving his acceptance speech. “This just goes to prove,” he intones, “that you can be anything you want to be!” And the crowd goes wild in agreement. A famous athlete visits her alma mater, where she exhorts the students, “Don’t ever give up on your dreams. If you can dream it, you can be it.”
These are very nice thoughts indeed—ever-so-comfortable, easy-to-digest examples of the type of encouragement we like to offer to future generations—so much so that I nearly falter in my sworn mission to correct everyone’s errors. Nevertheless, I must press on with the bad news.
This theory is utter bunk.
As nice as it feels to imagine that believing in yourself and/or your dreams results in the achievement of said dreams, the hypothesis would never survive a scientific experiment, legal trial, or data research. It’s pure mythology.
You may have noticed that the deliverers of such inspiring messages are always those who have succeeded in one way or another. It’s like a lottery winner announcing, “You see? You can win the lottery if you just believe you can.” But lottery losers, people with unfulfilled goals, competitors who placed second, and those who’ve been less fortunate never have much to say about how we can be or do anything we want to be or do. Curious, don’t you find? Maybe it’s because they dreamed about it and it never happened. I’ve yet to see the eliminated designer on Project Runway or the eliminated chef on Chopped let the viewing audience know on the way out that “all you have to do is believe, and you can do anything.” The idea just doesn’t stand up to logic, and the experience of those who don’t win proves it.
“But wait,” says the argumentative diehard believer in my mind, “those examples don’t apply, because they’re competitions.” Fair enough. I understand now. So outside of competitions, we can be anything we dream of, yes? Fantastic. Let’s talk personal goals that have nothing to do with competing. I’d love to have my full head of hair back; it’s a dream of mine. How about that? If I dream hard enough, can I make it so? Or what if someone dreams of being tall? Or short? Or of being a different race? What if they dream of being straight, or gay? Oh, those are different too? Can’t do it? Got it. My mistake.
What if a young person dreams of discovering time travel? I mean, he’s dreaming it, isn’t he? And you can do anything you dream of, right? . . . I’m sorry, I couldn’t quite hear you. Oh, that one doesn’t apply either. Very well. So we’re already amending the “anything” part? Clearly, some dreams are off the list, like those dreams that can't be achieved. Well, that’s reasonable. Forgive me. I seem to be a bit slow on this whole dream it/be it theory.
Next question, Mr. Diehard: What if it’s your heart’s desire to conquer a foreign country by force, pull off a bank heist, exact revenge on a bully, or indiscriminately bed an endless stream of lovers? What?? One can’t make those things happen by believing in their dreams either?? Sheesh. I didn’t know the dreams had to be ethical or legal. So what’s left? Exactly when does this whole believe-in-yourself-and-your-dreams-will-come-true thing work?
Okay. I have it now: A kid wants to be a famous singer even though she's tone deaf. Another wants to be a painter but lacks natural talent—wait for it—and studying doesn’t fit with his “dream.” What now? And what about the kid who yearns to be a professional boxer but doesn’t have legs? Too grim? I’m sorry. But imagine that kid watching that famous athlete telling the crowd that anyone can do anything if they just believe.
Look, it makes perfect sense for successful people to feel grateful, joyous, moved, humbled, or anything else. It makes perfect sense that they’d want to celebrate, and share the celebration with others. The Curmudgeon would never deny them that. And, too, self-confidence and optimism are very healthy qualities. But if those qualities aren’t tethered to the inarguable, proven reality that no matter how hard we dream, we can’t have all the things we'd like to have or be all the things we’d like to be, then they’re not healthy. They’re psychotic.
Drawing the false cause-and-effect connection that says “My success proves you can to anything” is ultimately more cruel than encouraging, as it sets young people up for the crushing, inevitable realization that they can’t. And that’s a pretty nasty wake-up.