'You can be anything!" we cheer.
But does this really help the young when they are already trying to decide on one thing out of a myriad of choices?
'You can be anything' is a potential-limiting phrase typically thrust upon sparkly-eyed youths as they dream about who they wish to be in the future. We wonder why the youth of today suffer so much with anxiety, indecision, and general inability to decide what to do with their lives. I believe the answer lies in how we talk to them about their potential futures.
Have you ever approached an adult and told them they could be anything? Would you communicate the same level of enthusiasm to an adult as you would when expressing the same sentiment to a child? Of course not. And why not? Is it because an exchange between two older people, wise to the realities of the world, already know that it isn't quite likely that they could actually do every possible thing and would be quite naive to even suggest it?
When I was a little curly-haired kid, I wanted to be an astronaut and discover the far reaches of our solar system. My fantastical dreams were met with the typical, 'that's nice dear - you can be anything!' Imagine my surprise to discover I suffered from horrific motion sickness in something as basic as sitting in a fast moving cab; there would be no job offer from NASA in my future.
What good does it do giving our children the belief that they could work in occupations not at all suited to their skills and character? Stating that someone can be 'anything' implies an infinite number of choices. Basic psychology tells us that when the number of choices a person has rises, their ability to make a choice decreases. That is why one of the rules of sales is to not overwhelm your customer with choices.
This issue was discussed in the 2004 book by American psychologist Barry Schwartz titled 'The Paradox of Choice'. He argued that reducing the number of choices one has, has a corresponding effect on the anxiety experienced by those in a consumer environment. Simply put, having less things to choose from gives one confidence that they have a reduced chance of making the wrong choice - a lower number of choices therefore makes it easier to choose. And that is why I believe so many kids these days struggle to pin point exactly what they wish to do; a limitless number of occupations are offered up to them as possibilities, and the fear of making the wrong choice paralyses them into inaction.
The answer is to actually take the time to sit with a child and identify their skills, their passions, their character, and their natural inclinations; every kid has at least one talent. Only then can a shorter list of choices be identified from which it is possible and reasonable for them to work towards and achieve. A proactive, realistic, and honest discussion focusing on what someone can do is in my opinion much more effective at helping the youth and will prepare them for the stark realities of the real world. The best choice for a child is to do what they are good at and what is actually interesting to them.
Because when you are offered the world, how on earth are you supposed to choose?
Sarah Bell is a writer based in Seoul. Bell's writing portfolio is viewable at http://www.themscript.com