Once upon a time, I started singing opera. I was eleven and, at the time, I was actually pretty good (for an 11-year-old). For years, I assumed that the only thing I ever wanted was the be a great singer, and that it was only worth achieving if I was “the greatest.” I sang hours every day and got leads in lots of musicals — despite fucking hating musicals — and sang in multiple groups. I got into a conservatory in Southern California for college and showed up, all excited to seek my dream of being “the greatest.”
Until three weeks after arriving, when I realized that (1) I hated performing (2) I hated competing and (3) I would never be “the greatest.” Granted, I had sort of known all of those already; for one thing, I cried during all intermissions and I also was already blossoming on the actuality of my dream being quite impossible. So, I quickly quit that major, switched to writing and decided to do makeup for film as a job. I realized that being behind words or behind a camera was much more wonderful for me; to be a part of something rather than, for lack of a better description, the “something” itself, made much more sense to me and gave me so much more joy. Plus, if I fucked up, it was a whole lot easier to fix than when every person in the room was staring at me.
Confession: I don’t want to be The Leader. And I’m totally okay with that. I am fine with being in a leader position, wherein I could handle being in charge of some people and have lots of responsibilities, but I have zero desire to be the next Anna Wintour, Steve Jobs, Barack Obama or Beyonce. (Putting all of those people in one sentence feels weird. Too much power.) I want to be successful financially and well-respected in my field, but I don’t want to be “number 1.”
And, as cynical as this sounds, I know I will not be the next Wintour, Jobs, Obama or Beyonce. Why? Because I believe in realism. I believe that if something amazing happens to you, then that’s wonderful, but assuming it will happen because of your ethic and drive is simply setting yourself up to be disappointed by the seemingly lesser accomplishments you wind up achieving. You may get an amazing job working for a fantastic company while in your 40s, but if you were planning on running an enormous company by then, you probably won’t feel the impact of this achievement — even though you absolutely deserve to be proud, excited and happy for yourself.
Rudolph, for example, obviously helped Santa with his sleigh and led the whole team to safety, so he’s a beacon of hope to people who are seen as unique. This guy’s bioluminescent nose saved Christmas; we should all aspire to be like him, right? Well, no, not really. What of the rest of the team? Most of us can’t even remember their names without singing a song to recall them, let alone really recognize their contribution to the whole “Christmas” deal. All of those damn reindeer pulled Santa along every Christmas, but did they get songs about themselves? No, of course not, because they were part of a coordinated effort rather than leading a group using a glowing snout. Does that make them any less important? No. They didn’t need that song, they didn’t need a whole story; they just kept helping the team.
In the highly individualistic culture we live in, we’re frequently told to “reach for the stars,” whatever that means. We’re often informed that we can be whatever we want to be — however remarkably misleading that advice is — and that indeed, we should try.
Now, I’m not saying that we should start telling kids to reach for somewhere around the ceiling fan; by all means, encourage them to try as hard as they can to achieve what they want to achieve. But I am saying that I think it’s unrealistic and somewhat irresponsible to make kids believe that the best and only aspirations to have are to become CEOs and presidents and celebrities. When I used to tutor kids, I remember asking a small class of them what they wanted to be someday. Most responded with, “famous,” “the next Lady Gaga,” “president” and “the guy who made iPhones.” Two or three said they wanted to be doctors or rescue animals or be architects — high goals, still, but comparatively much more likely than the others.
Plus, we need doctors and people who want to save the environment and design structures; we don’t actually need and another Lady Gaga. Sure, of course we need a president, but there will never be a shortage of people vying for that position. We need people to stock grocery store shelves and pick up garbage and harvest crops. Do you have any idea how much our lives would suck if nobody did those jobs? And yet we glamorize those jobs which, in all actuality, are both vastly unattainable and oftentimes don’t contribute all that much to society.
In fact, our films, television shows and general attitudes tend to make fun of people who work at gas stations or clean up tables at diners, but why? Whenever people say, “(Insert extremely rich/famous person’s name) worked so hard to be where he/she is, therefore the rewards are deserved,” I get a bit frustrated; what, do factory and migrant and construction workers not work just as hard — if not harder, as they tend to epitomize the term “backbreaking labor” — for what they have, which is typically very little by comparison? Those who tend to reap such incredibly high rewards tend to have extreme luck on their sides, as well, not simply a high work ethic and ambition. I’m not trying to argue anything about wages or politics or libertarianism, but I do think our society’s attitude towards jobs we tend to look at as “beneath” us needs to change.
The drive to succeed at the highest level can lead to an “in it for yourself” attitude. Rather than wanting to help friends and coworkers, as well as participating well as a team member, actions are driven exclusively by a desire to gain benefits for one’s self. While this is often seen as acceptable, it can actually be pretty detrimental, as well; the people around us aren’t idiots, they can tell when a coworker is only thinking of his- or herself and never about the group as a whole, only performing tasks and looking out for one person’s interests. Not being seen as a “team player” kind of makes people not want to work with you or bother helping you out, so these selfish motivations can definitely backfire.
I distinctly remember working with an actress once who didn’t care whatsoever about the film as a whole, nor about the experience of being on set. All she wanted was for her own scenes to look beautiful and well-lit, but didn’t want to wait to do so and neglected to show respect or have a friendly demeanor towards anybody else. When time constraints occurred, she wouldn’t go along with changes or help anybody; her overall attitude just sucked. She didn’t see the team as being important to the finished product; she saw them as tools that contributed to her own success.
While her scenes wound up looking pretty nice, I was later told she’d been blacklisted, and people just generally refused to work with her ever again. She was a good, attractive actress, but because she simply wanted to be “the star” and not work with others or be a solid part of a team, nobody wanted to hire her later on or help her succeed. There are always going to be talented, amazing people out there, but very (very) few are indispensable enough to avoid having to work with others.
There are tons of driven people out there, as well, but many aren’t good at complimenting others’ personalities or taking a backseat to somebody else’s lead. Those are incredibly important qualities to possess, however, because for every famous actor who’s secretly an asshole on set, there are literally thousands more who would never, ever afford to act that way. For every employee at a company who gets away with being a self-centered asshole, there are dozens of others who will be fired — or at least, never succeed — for behaving similarly. We will not all be “the best” or “number one.” We will not all be “the leader,” but we can show our work integrity by taking a lead in acting like a dedicated, functional part of the team.
I am lucky enough to have gone to my desired college and have had parents who helped me acquire loans to attend that college. I plan on possibly getting married, definitely having 3+ kids, owning my own home/farm, continuing to write and someday sending my kids on their own desired life paths as a result of my work. In my opinion, this is still “reaching for the stars” in a country where the middle class, as well as the ability to fully pay for one’s children to school, is decreasing yearly. I still feel like these are high goals, but they’re simply not “the stars” I was previously told to reach for.
Right now, I work with great people, delivering thoughts and news and arguments to an interested, receptive audience. I like doing what I do and want to keep doing it. For me, that’s significantly more rewarding than aspiring and working exclusively to reach the goal of being rich and famous and numero uno, uno, uno — particularly considering I’m fairly young and don’t have a ton of financial responsibilities beyond my own.
If you want to be a famous singer or actor or the head of an enormous company and have what it takes — including talent, luck, connections, drive, the ability to accept criticism, tons of ambition, and oftentimes money/famous parents — go for it. By all means, go for it. But please, when you show up to a high school reunion, don’t feel like you’re some kind of failure just because you’re in between jobs or you don’t have a million dollars yet. As I’ve said, there’s no shame in not making tons of money or doing what you have to do carry on; surviving financially and emotionally is difficult enough without adding “constant self-disappointment” to the list of things going against you.
If you believe in working hard and climbing the “ladder to success,” I am totally high-fiving you from my spot in front of this laptop. I think it’s great to go after your goals and dreams, pursuing them ambitiously and with ferver. But if you will only be happy if you become extraordinarily wealthy and famous, as well as unwilling to work in groups unless it helps you get what you want, then reality might wind up kicking you in the face a bit later on (or, who knows, maybe you’ll wind up being bigger than Gaga, in which case feel free to give me the e-finger). Being a leader, or “the best,” is an incredibly tasking job, so my hat is off to people who truly want and can handle it. Of course we need leaders, but those leaders who have nothing to lead without a crew behind them.
Regardless of our futures, being part of a team — or a “follower,” as one might refer to it — is integral to the turning of the cogs in our businesses and society, and should not be undermined as a lesser aspiration than being a leader. Being proud of who you are and working hard at what you do are so much more important, so don’t fret if your nose isn’t glowing; just keep pulling your weight with the sleigh and you’ll all land safely at the end.