A few thousand years ago, life was pretty simple. It certainly wasn't easy, but its purpose was straightforward enough; stay warm, sheltered and well fed and think, 'yeah, that was a good day. I'm still alive.' These basic primary endeavours would keep the typical Homo sapien busy for a lifetime before a tooth infection or appendicitis ended their life at the ripe old age of 23. Very little changed over the next few millennia. Food, warmth and shelter remained major concerns with procreation and entertainment acting as a pleasant little distraction from the day to day rigours of human existence.
Then the industrial and technological revolutions arrived causing humans to face the greatest psychological transformation in their history. Unbeknown to the great innovators who expanded the modern Western World at an almost exponential rate, a by-product from their efforts spread through the cognitive ether. They didn't see it of course, because their revolutionary ideas were too profound to be anything other than amazing. Food, shelter and warmth suddenly became convenient. Transport and communication expanded every human's reach. A tooth infection no longer carried a death sentence and entertainment became an all pervading multi-billion dollar industry. Social media, reality television, Gangnam Style; what could possibly go wrong with these wonders in our lives?
Anxiety, that's what. An increased occurrence of a painfully debilitating mental pinball machine, firing erratically in one's head.
Many of us are fortunate enough to live in a wonderfully free land of opportunity. We no longer need to trouble ourselves with slaying beasts, carving tools and creating fire to stay alive. In the absence of these necessities, the 21cst Century has allowed us to expand, find ourselves and self develop. Children and adults alike can immerse themselves in Twitter, Facebook and X-Factor to see what their heroes and peers are up to. We can aspire to be anything, do anything and achieve anything. We can dance like Flavia Cacace, write like J. K. Rowling and run like Mo Farah. If you want to be the next Beyonce, Hilary Mantel or Brian Cox then it's as easy as following your dream. Oh joy of joys...we can ALL FLY!
Well, not quite. The maths don't quite add up. In our rush to make this an all inclusive be anything and do anything society, we've not really thought it through to the inevitable conclusion. The current top three job aspirations for children are sports star, pop star and actor. But given that the chances of becoming any of those in a meaningful way are remote to say the least, we have a problem. Over 200,000 people enter X-Factor with 4, maybe 5 ever making it. That's 199,995 disappointed people, or 99.9975% dejected vocalists. But for some reason, these are not figures that anyone openly discusses or fully appreciates. Infact, the 'follow your dream' collective wouldn't even acknowledge them in fear of diluting their dogged determination to succeed. But they are critical; without appreciating these numbers, any journey to the top becomes an anxiety laden mine field, almost certainly ending in cerebral mess of negative self worth, failure and panic.
Before anybody lambastes me for being for being a pessimistic doom monger, I should quickly point out that aspiring to be a sports star, pop star or actor is great. It really is. Having a focus to become any one of these is truly admirable and should be supported. But, and it's a big but, at no point should anybody believe success can ONLY be attained through the sole achievement of these goals. Nobody should ever be in a position where they believe they are a 'failure' because they never got to score the winning goal at Stamford Bridge or star alongside Tom Cruise in Top Gun 2. In the nicest way possible, it's very, very unlikely that you will have the honour of knocking One Direction off the top of the charts.
So, is it wrong to tell aspiring kids and adults to 'work hard, stay focussed and you'll achieve your dreams'? Absolutely not. But it's irresponsible to make any one believe that the formula is that simple. Of course, work hard to realise your ambitions. Have goals and aspirations; after all, they are the backbone of human development in a modern world that allows them to be. But temper these with an optimistic reality.
'Success' should never be through a single point of focus, especially in competitive industries where the odds of achieving are minimal. Let's be honest, if your definition of success is winning X-Factor, you've left yourself a 1 in 200,000 chance of avoiding failure. And this kind of failure can be a doorway to all manner of miserable psychological problems, anxiety being one. Success, therefore, is what's learned on the journey, NOT what's achieved at the end. One's worth and validation is forged from the experiences en route, NOT from whether the neighbour's daughter has a sticker of you on her maths book. And one's sense of personal wealth and satisfaction are gained from the pocket triumphs and like minded allies on the same path. In the most spiritually life affirming sense, a person isn't necessarily better because they're on a lunch-box.
And what is 'making it' anyway? Surely our ancient cousins had that right? Surely it's being warm, sheltered and well fed before thinking, 'yeah, that was a good day. I'm still alive"?