Saturday, May 23, 2020

Anything you want to be

It's an article of faith in our new religion that you have no necessary nature; you can be anything you want to be. Quite a few of the powerful join in the chorus, including groups you'd think would be more bottom-line focussed. And the HR departments sing along.

I remember hearing "you can be anything you want to be" long ago. Back then it was a statement of pride in the USA, and an invitation to hope. It really meant "You may be anything you want to be," of course: I could no more play professional basketball than I could swim the Atlantic.

The "can" is deceptive. We've heard the claim that "10,000 hours of practice" will make you excel, and some people seem to believe it.

One group that seems pre-disposed to believe it are the gifted. I became a scientist. I could have become a lawyer. I could have become a second-tier mathematician, I think. (I'm not sure I could have become a doctor--too much memorization.) I had a lot of options, and many things came easy. And I suspect I inherited some predispositions along with the gifts, so I ignored some options. Surely other people could do the same, right? Because I was taking the "gifted track" most of the people I hung out with were likewise gifted; I came from a gifted family--you can see the sampling bias. If you didn't excel, it was because you hadn't chosen to, or because you didn't have good schools, or something else in society got in your way.

I suspect industry and media leaders see the same sort of sampling bias, for the same reasons.

If you don't feel good blaming people, then the reasons for failure to excel must be accidental or structural--nurture, not nature; and not choice.

And there's another deception in the claim: "be." I wrote that I "became" a scientist. That's not quite right. I trained as one, developed the habits of thought needed for one, worked as one--but I did not change my nature: It's still me in here. With enough free time I could study law and "become" a lawyer--and still be me.

That careless "be" can turn very expansive. It needn't just refer to professions.

The interior "me" is invisible to everyone but me and God. Since the "me" can choose, the "me" is a kind of creator, with all the power that implies. If my desires become changes in the world, how powerful my desires must be! (Just don't look too closely at the pattern of limitations here; close your eyes and blame them on society.)

Suppose I understand the "me" not in terms of some given nature, or even in terms of capabilities, but in terms of desires. That has several advantages: Nobody is in a position to contradict me, which magnifies my power vis-a-vis everybody else. I can blame any lack of changes in the world commensurate with my desires on society. I can change if I find my current definition inconvenient. I am not responsible to anyone for my desires, and if I can pull it off, not for actions either. I can be anything I want to be. Maybe I can do anything I want to do, too.(*)

This treats choice incoherently, of course.

I suspected the "I identify as a dragon" character at google was pulling somebody's leg. But I could be wrong, some people take this very seriously.

I have no idea how to communicate with someone like that. I don't see any common language anymore. "It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is."

(*) We were well on our way to worshipping desire when we decided that the measure of a person's character was not in their control of their desires but in the strength of their desires.


Korora said...

Given that addicts have really strong desires, as did Ted Bundy...

Krutz; I forgot that singlethink is a form of bigotry.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I very much worry about the emotional damage on children who believe this nonsense and decide that they have been cheated in some way if they didn't "dare to dream" quite hard enough. In the fields where only the very few get paid well, such as sports or entertainment, there are an enormous number of people just below that level, almost as good, whose lives are shattered.