Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Reinventing Yourself in America

"There are no second acts in American lives."  -- F. Scott Fitzgerald

Don't take career advice from F. Scott Fitzgerald!

Let's face it, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a total loser.  I mean, he married Zelda for starters, and she was psychotic.  And then if any of Hemingway's writings are to be believed, he was obsessed about his tiny penis size, was a chronic hypochondriac, an alcoholic, and closet homosexual (if you read between the lines in Hemingway's books.  But then again, Hemingway..... never mind).

The quote really is just a catchy phrase that is really just meaningless gibberish.  What is it saying?  That there are second acts in European lives - or in Asian lives?  It really says nothing at all.  And you know what?  The Great Gatsby really wasn't all that great.  No, really.  At the time it was published no one really thought much of it.  I was only later that it took on a life of its own.  And it frankly is overwrought with heavy symbolism and sort of a weak plot.  But I digress...

Yet, that quote has taken on a life of its own - probably because it is unconventional advice and also is catchy and memorable.  But it also is utterly wrong - and wrong-minded.  It is wrong, as there is copious evidence to the contrary - millions of people in America who re-invent themselves for "Act II" or even Acts 3 and 4.  And it is also wrong-minded or even mean-spirited as it discourages people from even trying.  For example my psychotic Mother loved that quote - it gave her an excuse to not even try.  And most depressed people like that quote as well for the same reason.

But you can re-invent yourself in America, and people do it all the time.   I know quite a few myself.  And in fact, I sort of did this myself.  Until about age 25, I was your typical young stoner/slacker trying to do as little as possible and consume as many mood-altering substances as possible and basically not really caring much about the future.  I wasn't quite living in my parent's basement (fortunately their house had only a crawl space) but I certainly wasn't living up to my potential.

But I decided, one day, than enough was enough.  I completed my Engineering Degree, left my hometown to seek work in the big city, and went to law school.  And that has made all the difference in the world.  Things that seemed impossible to me before (or my peers - after all, Engineering and Law are "hard" - right?) suddenly became possible.  I changed the track of my life, and it wasn't that hard to do, in retrospect.

Or consider, as I noted previously, my friend born in South Philadelphia in a bad neighborhood, who decided not to become pregnant on and welfare at age 16 - like all of her peers - and instead worked her way up the ranks in the Navy to the elite JAG Corps.  It can be done,  it isn't easy.  But the hardest part is deciding to try.

Or consider my friend Cynthia.  She is a clothing designer for an upscale fashion store and has a clientele of very wealthy people in the big city, who all come to her for fashion advice and to wear her latest styles.  She is such the epitome of style, sophistication, and class.   One night, over way too many bottles of Champagne, she confessed to me that her name was not Cynthia, but Cindy, and that she grew up in a run-down trailer park in West Virginia.  She doesn't know who her Father is, and her Mother drove trucks to make a living.  (Cindy's name and details have been altered for this article, of course).  She could have grown up just another unknown poor child in Appalachia, pregnant at 16, working at the convenience store every evening, living in the trailer next door to her Mother.

But she decided to do something else, instead.  Working hard, she got a small scholarship and got into art school.  She had to work part-time to support herself, but she succeeded and graduated.   It took a long time and a lot of hard work to get where she is today, but she did it.  And the hardest part was deciding to try.

People reinvent themselves all the time, and in fact, you sort of have to invent yourself to begin with - which is one of the hardest things to do in your early life.  As youngsters, we start out as schoolkids, and define ourselves by our peer group, the fashions, trends, and lingo of our youth.  Transitioning from that into a working career is often difficult, and one reason why, I think, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses tend to manifest themselves in the late teens and early 20's - making that transition is very hard to do!

And in your 20's, even on a career track, let's face it - most of us were clueless.  Your typical "20-something" in the USA is still obsessed about wearing the right clothes, going to the right clubs, and delving into the latest trends, fashions and fads.  And most of us, at that age, just want to spend it all on junk and save little for later and want to keep living as a kid for as long as possible.  Marriage and children usually allow for most people to reinvent themselves as adults - at least in theory.

The point is - and I did have one - is that you are not locked into one particular mode of behavior for your life - determined by your socioeconomic status, your parent's background, your culture, your gender, your race, your nationality, your ethnicity, or whatever.  And yet there are an army of sociologists out there who will argue the opposite - because statistics show that people from certain demographic groups are prone to certain behaviors!

Statistics don't lie, but liars use statistics.  And nowhere is this more true than when it comes to social policy.  Because as soon as you tell someone that they can't help themselves (in either meaning of that phrase) it will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.  People will live up to the standards you set for them - or live down to your low expectations.

If you tell someone that "It's OK if you don't try, because for someone in your socioeconomic group, the likelihood of success is low" than you sentence that socioeconomic group to perpetual penury.  And unfortunately, this is what we have done, to some extent, in this country.  We target people, early on in life, as failures, and then cater to their low-self-esteem and low expectations.

For you as an individual, however, you need not accept their preconceived notions of who you are or what you are capable of.  You can re-invent yourself as something better.   But it takes the willpower to decide to try.

And oftentimes, the first step is to move away - both physically and mentally - from peer groups that want to drag you down to their level.  Go where the money is, as they say.  And that is the subject for my next posting.