As ambitious as you want to be, not as ambitious as you have to be

Sorry. I have to post this again:

I was watching the Republican convention last night, and I was struck by how every single person speaking claimed to have come from nothing. Do no politicians ever come from the middle or upper class? Everyone struggled, everyone had hard times. The Romney’s ate a lot of tuna and pasta, and had a desk that was a door on two sawhorses. Paul Ryan waited tables, washed dishes, and mowed lawns. You’d never know that both came from prominent families with many connections.

This struck me because I’m just as guilty of this practice. When my kids complain about not getting one thing or another, I often fall back on the old “I had it so much worse when I was a kid” routine. When my oldest complains about his friends going to Europe, I tell him how I didn’t even get on my first plane until I was in fifth grade. When my middle child complains about the temperature in the house, I tell him we didn’t even have central air when I was growing up. When my youngest complains about not having a TV in the car, I tell her about the unbelievable lemons my parents drove when I was a kid.

Yes, my children have it much better than I did when I was their age. My dad made a shockingly little amount of money as a resident and a fellow. But… come on. I went to private school for twelve years before spending an embarrassingly large amount of money on college and medical school. I lived in moderate to large houses in nice suburban neighborhoods. I didn’t drive a Mercedes when I turned 16, but we did have a vehicle that was considered “mine”.

I was never hungry. I never worried that the power might go off. I had an unlimited supply of books. And I had a safety net in the form of family that was inviolable.

It’s tempting to try and make every tale into a hard luck one. We all want to believe we came from meager beginnings to where we are today. It’s the American Dream. It’s a story that sells.

There sometimes seems to be a lack of perspective out there. We all like to think we built what we have from nothing without recognizing that “nothing” isn’t even in many of our vocabularies. I think of this when I write about doctors complaining about “making ends meet“. I think about this when I read stories about how people in Manhattan complain about living on half a million dollars. I think about this when I read stories of people making $200,000 complaining about how hard it is.

And I think about it – and feel guilty – when I see myself saying similar things to my children.

I think we’d all do better, myself included, if we recognized how good we actually had it. We’d be more honest if we recognized that being worse off is relative, and that there are many for whom “struggling” has actual meaning. I think we’d do better by the next generation by teaching them that safety nets – in all forms – have value, even if they only provide you the safety and love to give you the space to better yourself.

I also think that we would do better by paying the debt of that safety net forward instead of imagining that it’s making people complacent. It didn’t do that for us.

Some of us are as ambitious as we’d like to be. That’s not the same as being as ambitious as you have to be. There’s a difference.

UPDATE:

Guess I wasn’t the only one who felt this way:

@aaronecarroll

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