Can I be Anything I Want to Be?


January 28, 2017  |   PASTOR ZACHARY PUDLO

“In American books between 1960 and 2008, just be yourself became 8 times more frequent, learned about myself 4.6 times, believe in yourself 6.5 times, express yourself 2 times, respect yourself 2.7 times, be honest with yourself 3 times, love yourself 5.7 times, I love me 6.7 times, and stand up for yourself 6 times.” I have to thank Dr. Jean Twenge for doing the research and publishing it in her book Generation Me. What’s the point? In the matter of two generations we have become a generation that is quite obviously self-focused. It’s no wonder we encourage children to be whatever they want to be. We want them to focus on what they want for themselves more than anything else. But that begs the question, are we leading children down the wrong path? Do we really believe that any one individual can be anything they want to be, or are we leading them down the wrong path in telling them this?
Setting Up for Failure
In What Really Happened to the Class of ‘93, Chris Colin notes how frequently he and his classmates were told, “You can be whatever you want to be” and “Nothing is impossible.” Why is this message being propagated more and more? It’s about building self-esteem. We want children to believe they can achieve anything? We want them to reach for the stars and achieve greatness! But is building their self-esteem the best way to motivate them on towards greatness? Is self-esteem the way to success? The statistics certainly don’t back that theory.
In 2012, 58% of high school students expected to go on to graduate or professional school, nearly twice as many as in 1976. Yet the number who actually earned graduate degrees has remained unchanged at about 9%. If building a child’s self-esteem is supposed to inspire that child onto greatness in academics, why isn’t this reflected in the percentage of those getting degrees from post-graduate schools?
The past couple generations have been flooding our minds with the idea, “You can be whatever you want to be.” One of their intended purposes in saying this is to build self-esteem which in turn is supposed to lead to great success and achievement. However, it doesn’t seem to be having the desired effect. Despite what we think, there is no direct correlation between high self-esteem and success. High self-esteem does not lead to high performance. There are multiple studies that all come to the same conclusion. Asian Americans have the lowest self-esteem and still have the highest academic performance of any ethnic group. Furthermore, Asian American adults have the lowest unemployment rate among all races. If anything, the statistics would show us the lower a person’s self esteem the more driven and successful they will be.
If anything, we are setting our children up for failure by giving children false hopes when we tell them, “You can be anything you want.” There are countless movies that illustrate someone going from a nobody to the very best practically overnight. Included in that list are some of my childhood favorites: The Karate Kid, Little Giants and Happy Gilmore just to name a few. Is it right to tell young people they can be whatever they want to be? What are we doing when we tell a young man whose father stands 5’3 and mother is no more than 5’0 on a good day that he can be an offensive lineman in the NFL? What are we telling a young man whose father is 7’0 and mother is 6’3 that he could be a horse jockey if he really wants to be one? Aren’t we setting these young people up for failure if we tell them to go against the very fabric of their nature?
Do we really want the upcoming generation to think they are destined for greatness and it will happen overnight? Furthermore, do we really think successful careers will lead to ultimate happiness? If so, why is depression, drug use, and suicide so prevalent in Hollywood among some of the most successful people in the world? Could it be that being successful doesn’t lead to ultimate happiness? Is it possible that we were designed and created for a deeper purpose?
A Deeper Purpose
Psalm 139:13 says God “created my inmost being…and knit me together in my mother’s womb.” The Christian teaching on this: God was very involved in designing each human being. He is compared to a knitter who will carefully plan their creation, design it and form it delicately by hand. The goal is to create something for a very specific purpose. That’s what God goes on to say in the New Testament as well. In Romans 12 it says we have all been designed with different gifts and purposes. “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach;  if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” (Romans 12:6-8)
God clearly designed us each uniquely and with an intended purpose. When we try to be something for which we weren’t designed we are not only going against the fabric of our nature, but also against the designer’s intended purpose. It is foolish to go against our design. When I was younger I often liked helping my dad with projects around the house. That included car maintenance projects. I distinctly remember having a number of different tools which all served different purposes. If a screwdriver one day said to me, “I want to be a hammer. Start using me to hammer nails in,” I would first off be surprised that the screwdriver was speaking to me. After that initial shock, I would deny it what it wants. If I began to use the screwdriver as a hammer that tool would soon be ruined. It would be going against it’s design.
Not only is it dangerous for the tool to go against its design, it is also much more freeing to do what you were designed to do. I am reminded of an episode from the TV show Scrubs where the main character takes a fish out of the stream, tosses it onto dry land and says, “You’re free.” Despite the fact that it might seem freeing to take a fish out of the confines of a stream, it is actually not freeing at all. It is going to lead to death. Despite what we might think, we are most free when we stick to the confines of our design (see the cover article of our July 2016 Newsletter for more on this). 
Some might say, “If we don’t tell young people they can be whatever they want then they won’t dream big at all”. To that I would argue quite to the contrary. As some of the opening stats show, the overwhelming focus on self is only a recent historical phenomenon. But before this shift think of all the people who have dreamed big
and accomplished great things. The list is too great to even begin!
The Biblical teaching motivates us to great things. God designed us and knew we are all capable of great things simply by living according to our design. A famous quote often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, although it is really in a memoir of Laurence Hutton recalling a meeting with William Makepeace Thackeray, sticks with me. “Whatever you are, try to be a good one.” Notice the focus. It’s not on what you want to be, but on what you are, what you were designed to be. This quote is far closer to the Biblical teaching on vocation. God has made us. We are who we are. And we will be most free when we do our best at what we were designed to be. That’s what we should be encouraging our young people these days. We should encourage them to find what they are good at first and foremost. What gifts has God given them? And after they have done that, then we can encourage them to dream big about those specific talents. Not only is this according to the design our creator intended, but it is also the most liberating path to take.