Friday, June 12, 2009

Dare To Dream

By John Gilstrap

It’s June, so another graduation season is drawing to a close. In high schools and colleges all over the United States, proud students are donning caps and gowns, and posing for pictures with even prouder parents and grandparents. Late spring is the time of unbridled opportunity. Those young men and women literally own the future—their own, to be sure, but also mine, by extension. Given the inherent joy of the season, I wonder why so many adults seem to take pleasure in screwing it all up.

When the announcement is made at the family dinner that young William or Wilhelmina has a computer science degree or a business degree, or that they’ve been accepted to the law school of their choice, the sense of approval is palpable. Everybody knows that those kids are set for life. Their future will be filled with money and material gain.

Have you noticed that music majors or creative writing majors or acting majors don’t receive the same universal acceptance? Is it because the presumed path to wealth isn’t quite so linear? Is it because liberal arts and social sciences aren’t as important to society as harvesting a new crop of lawyers? This bothers me.

I find it difficult to believe that at the doddering age of 21, every law school inductee is truly pursuing his or her passion. I could be wrong—I’ve spent a lifetime being wrong many, many times—but whenever I see a newly minted lawyer or accountant, I get the sense that in more than a few cases, their beaming smiles are reflections of just their own ambitions, but those of Mom and Dad as well.

Maybe I don’t want to see so young a person with so pedestrian a dream as being a lawyer or accountant. Age forty-one is the time for 12-hour work days and heavy responsibility, not twenty-one. Is this really their dream? For some, yes. For many, I suspect no.

You want to see lofty dreams? You want to be inspired by a youthful spirit? Sit down and talk to those creative writing students and the musicians. They know that the odds of success are stacked against them, but they don’t care. They’ve got a passion, and they’re going to pursue it to the end, until they either succeed or are forced by finances or a broken spirit to declare defeat.

If they beat the odds—and let’s face it, they are long odds—naysayers will pronounce them to be “lucky.” But that’s only if the success is huge. Like George Clooney or John Grisham huge.

Otherwise, in my experience, people will find a way to diminish true success and turn it into something less than it is. It’s only a TV movie, not a real movie. It’s only being published by a small press, not a major house. It’s only the Washington Opera company, not the Met. It’s only the touring company, not Broadway. Sure, he made it to the Chicago Bears, but he never made it above second string.

It’s a shame about William. He never really made it. Never mind that William is doing what he loves.

I feel sorry for the kids who have been career tracked by their parents. It’s foolish to think about becoming an artist, they are told, because it’s impossible to make any money at it. They'll prove their point by reciting a litany of one hit wonders and abject failures from among their own childhoods. Give up now, son; you’ll never make it. This from the same mother or father who said never give up on the soccer field or in Math class. Those are important. Without the connections and the A-plus report card, Harvard is off the table, don’t you know.

I know that I am painting with a very broad brush here, but I’ve known these parents. I’ve had to justify why I was ruining my own son’s chances at success by not shipping him off to boarding school where he could start networking at age fourteen. (I’m not making that up. I turned the debate around, though, when I asked the overachievers why they were willing to surrender custody of their adolescent children at the moment in their lives when they most needed the steady hand and constant love of their parents.)

So listen up, graduates: It’s your life now. You have the God-given right to live it as you please. If acting like you’re forty when you’re 20 years younger is your thing, then go for it. But if you want to start a rock band or become a poet or set a new standard for sculpture, this is the time. If it doesn’t work, how much harm can you do to an accounting career that hasn’t started yet?

How do you even know that you want to be an accountant if you haven’t tried a dozen other things? I’ve got nothing against accountants, don’t get me wrong, but this is an important life choice. Suppose you hate being an accountant? Changing your mind becomes a lot harder after you’ve got kids and a mortgage, and I think that the seeds of doubt over what might have been if only you'd tried could be crippling.

I say if you’ve got talent and a dream, pursue the hell out of it. This is the time. Success only comes to those to endeavor to achieve it. Failure only comes to those who surrender.

And to surrender without trying, well, that’s just cowardice.


  1. "I find it difficult to believe that at the doddering age of 21, the average law school inductee is truly pursuing his or her passion. I could be wrong—I’ve spent a lifetime being wrong many, many times—but whenever I see a newly minted lawyer or accountant, I get the sense that their beaming smiles are reflections of just their own ambitions, but those of Mom and Dad as well."

    I prosecute gang crime in a major US city. I prosecute gang members accused of stabbings, attempted homicide, armed robberies and drug dealing. I am underpaid, overworked and under incredible pressure. I work weekends and nights and lose sleep worrying about whether I've done enough to prosecute cases where the victims and witnesses usually refuse to testify or "forget." (I have a case where the defendant shot a Tec-9 assault weapon at a crowd of people and not a single one of them would give a statement to the

    You know what? I wouldn't trade it for the world. It's my passion.

    And I'm a lawyer.

  2. Anon,

    Clearly, you're pursuing your passion. Congratulations. That's what self actualization is all about.

    People who share your situation, irrespective of career pursuit--people who are doing what they love to do because they love to do it--are people I admire greatly. It's the folks who get corralled into jobs they ultimately hate that I feel sorry for.

    And there are a lot of them.

  3. John, wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to choose a career until later in life, say in our sixties or seventies? In the prior years, we should be allowed to sample, like a giant occupational salad bar. Because trying to make life choices at 21 is crazy. There’s an old saying that if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Nice post.

  4. Well said, John. Your article should be required reading for every parent of a child who is old enough to go to school. Chasing money is taking hold of the wrong end of the career stick.

  5. John, I understand your post and I'm not trying to be disrespectful. But also at a young age I believe it's the parent's responsibility to direct our children. And sometimes that means councelling them on their future.

    My oldest daughter wanted to be a storm chaser. Now this wasn't the dream of a 10 year old, this was a high school senior. Okay, I'm sorry, I would have been my own definition of a failed parent if I didn't at least work with my child to see what she faced. We had long discussions and finally my wife convinced her to shadow a Speech Language Pathologist who we knew quite well.

    My oldest daughter is now a certified Speech Language Pathologist and has just accepted a job with a school district to work with children. She loves her work, feels like she's making a difference in a child's life every day AND she's making a good wage.

    What would have happened if we just let her follow her dream? We'll never know. We didn't set her career for her, but we did influence it. And I don't feel one bit sorry for it. In fact I'm quite proud of it and the young woman she's grown up to be.

    My second daughter is in the Number 1 school of Journalisnm in the country. She's passionate about Journalism, but we've encouraged her to minor in Business or Public Relations. Again, with the uncertain future of print, I believe she may need a fail-safe and needs to be prepared.

    I'm now working with my last daughter to decide her path in college. I continue to play the role of mentor. There's plenty of time in life to follow your dream. If you're really passionate about something, then you'll find time to devote to it even if you have a law degree.

  6. Heck, I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up! But I'm the guy at the buffet line that puts a little bit of everything on his plate, so my career path is much like a deflating balloon careening around the sky. Unfortunately, that metaphor applies to my bank account too.....

  7. John
    All I ever wanted to be was a writer or an actress and guess what, I became a lawyer...Because if you did well academicaly that's what they told you to do at my school. I listened...but I don't regret doing what I did before - it was just my path and now I'm on the one I love I'm very happy. What's interesting is that many people in Australia still seem bemused - "but you could have been a partner in a law firm" - so I guess for some people the arts is still the 'loser' thing to do. At least now I don't care and don't feel like I have to justify or validate what I do (well not all the time:)!)

  8. Great Post, JG. And I want to thank, Anonymous from the bottom of my heart for his service. I have known a lot of people who give so much and expect so little in the way of compensation in return. Their reward is not bankable except in their hearts and souls. Anonymous, I salute you and I think God for you and everybody like you.

  9. I have a Masters Degree in mucis, so I know exactly what you're talking about. (I got a "real job" when my daughter was born, after about 15 years chasing that rainbow.) When friends ask, as they occasionally do, what they should tell thier kid who wants to major in music, i recommend they try to talk him out of it without putting their foot down and forbidding it. It's a hard way to make a living, and if the kid can be talked out of it, he had no chance. If he listens to them, and, on one occasion, me, and still wantas to do it, he has a shot. At least if he has to pack it in he can do it without regret, knowing he gave it his best shot, as I have.

    My daughter graduated high school Monday; yesterday was her college orientation. She wants to be a doctor, but I'm probably more proud of the fact that she wants to major in Romance Languages in indergraduate school. That choice may redirect her interests as she grows, or it may make her a better doctor. Doesn't matter. If I can be happy about having taught her one thing, it's that a liberal arts education is NEVER wasted, and, at eighteen, she gets it.

    Anonymous, I applaud your choice and dedication. Alas, I fear you are in the minority.

  10. There's no such thing as a "fail-safe", and anyway you only get a degree for the subject you major in, so I don't see how minoring in business or PR is going to be a backup plan. Seems to me it will just be more classes to take up her time and add more stress to her life because Journalism is a tough, diverse major that requires a lot of hard work.

    It just seems selfish to me. As long as you feel secure about your children's future, as long as you're not worrying, well then what does it matter that they are being made to settle for a life that is not their first choice? As long as your proud. But the way I see it, I'm the one who has to live with myself everyday; I'm the one living my life, not my parents, so why should they decide what I do with my life?

    I feel fortunate that my parents have supported me know matter what. Instead of saying, no that path isn't stable enough, it's too risky, why not say, you're my child and I love you and I support you, go follow your heart and don't settle for anything less? Wouldn't that be better?

    Now, in the back of her mind, your daughter might be thinking what if I had become a storm chaser, what if I had followed my dream? Yeah, things are good now, but what if I had done it and succeeded? What if? That's the kind of question that can haunt you forever. And if this hypothetical does come to pass, guess who she's going to feel resentful towards.

    Anyway, that's my opinion, for what it's worth. For me, I'd rather die than settle for less because this is the only life I know for sure I'm going to get, so why should I spend it doing something I don't like?

  11. You see John, that's just it. There are no guarantees in life. Only what-ifs and speculation when it comes to the future.

    I wanted to be a veteranarian when I was in high school. My parents wanted me to follow my father's footsteps and become an iron worker. Now I'm an Environmental Engineer and an author. I don't look back and say what if. I look forward and say what can I do. And I feel I'm blessed for what I have.

    Honestly, my oldest daughter jokes about her past dream and doesn't give a hoot about it. As Joe said, wouldn't it be nice to be able to wait until much later in life to pick a career.

    For the record, in journalism as with any degree you have to take other subjects. She is hours ahead because of the college courses she took in high school. Why not take classes that she can fall back on rather than some kind of mythology?

    You see, I communicate with my girls, I don't talk at them. I wish more parents acted like parents instead of being their childrens best friends. For the record, I'm the one putting out the $100,000 for my girl's education. I think that qualifies me to have some input on how it's spent.

    I appreciate your comments and we can agree to disagree. My apologies to The Kill Zone authors for this rebuttal.

  12. "My apologies to The Kill Zone authors for this rebuttal."

    Wilfred, there's never a need for an apology here. One of the great things about open forums like this is we can all come together and express our opinions in a friendly and professional manner. John has obviously created a post that caused different visitors to have different points of view. We welcome your comments and encourage everyone to express what you feel, whether you agree with any of us or other visitors. Thank you for doing just that.

  13. Thanks, Joe,

    And thanks to the John Gilstrap and the rest of the Kill Zone for a great blog.

    I'm still remember the Chicken talk in the van at Magna Com Murder.

  14. Wilfred,

    Ah, the chickens. I learned so much more about chickens on that one little trip than I had accumulated in my entire life.

    I'm pleased that this post sparked a lively debate. Troubling thing about kids is that they're born naked and without an instruction book. We all do our best to do what's best.


  15. My creative writing student still has a year to go, but thank you for this encouragement. I'm glad he's pursuing his dream.

  16. I'm the prosecutor from the first post (Anonymous)and I wanted to thank John Ramsey Miller for his kind words. I had a frustrating morning in court and it was uplifting to read such an encouraging post.

    Also, I'm a she and not a he. :)
    (Two-thirds of the prosecutors in my gang unit are women.)

  17. We're talking quantity, when you get into monetary rewards of various careers, and rarely quality of life. Law students and medical students hope to make lots of money, in the main (although not always), vs. teachers, who make a comfortable living, if they're lucky. But we need teachers, and we need lots more workers than just lawyers and doctors. Potential earnings is a bizarre way to choose what to study, when you think about it.

    A friend's daughter was/is a math genius, and he was not happy that she majored in math because it limited her income potential. But that's what made her happy, and truthfully, this young woman is not the kind who wants to live in a fancy house or drive a Mercedes, anyway. At this point it doesn't make any difference what she majored in, since she's busy homeschooling her four kids, but those kids are getting a fantastic education. I can see her someday teaching math, and the world will have gained a gifted teacher who will light a fire under other potential math brains.

    Most people don't end up working in their majors, anyway. Those of us who do are definitely in the minority.

  18. I've often thought it was problematic that we're forced to make a major, life-altering decision about our future when we're about 18 years old. Oh well. We all muddle through.

  19. I had one dream from the time I was six. I was going to a US Marine Corps Officer and make it to at least Colonel, commanding Battallions of Marine Infantry. That dream was cut off after only six months and four days of service when I busted both of my ankles and was sent home from boot-camp with an "Oh No You Don't" stamped on my government form DD-214.

    After that I was a restaurant manager, military food service manager for the National Security Agency (chef to the spies), owned & operated a custom computer shop, worked as a carpenter, farmer, stage actor, lumberjack, tv commercial voice actor, Wilderness Rescue Certified Emergency Medical Technician, computer network manager, helpdesk supervisor, Boy Scout leader, IT training specialist, radio talk show host, computer forensics technician, and youth minister. After 9/11 I did get to serve in a smaller part of the military vision by joining the Alaska Defense Force, the State Militia that acts as a paramilitary backup to the Troopers and National Guard...nothing like being a Marine though.

    Having done all that I discovered at 39 that what I have a real passion for is telling stories. Now at 41 I have finally found what I want to be when I grow up, a writer.

    Now I just have to figure out when I will be growed up enough to sell said writers stuff and the so-called living off it.

    In the meantime I have encouraged my three sons, and my innumerable neices, nephews and students, to pursue what you are passionate about.

    disclaimer...passion about doing dastardly deeds may well get you sure you're passions are thoroughly vetted before pursuing them