At the age of seven, I declared myself an author and an illustrator, confidently nestled among the ranks of favorites — Eric Carle, Arnold Lobel, Roald Dahl — to name a few. Having begun writing in kindergarten, it seemed only natural. My young imagination was ripe with stories to tell, and I couldn’t fill the pages fast enough. My first-grade teacher would no doubt confirm this. I reeled in extra paper like most children do stickers and lollipops. At 18, my fate was sealed when I was voted “most likely to write a bestseller.”
Early on, we are convinced that we can do anything or become anyone. We fill our blank slates with dreams of being astronauts, actors, or activists. Superheroes are displayed proudly on our Band-Aids and backpacks; their stories line the pages of our books, and their disguises fill our dress-up bins.
We identify with such characters because behind their masks, they too are human: they feel bashful in front of a love interest or make blunders in front of their boss. They’re awkward, insecure, and at times annoying. We see ourselves so readily in them that it takes little convincing that they can in fact save humanity.
When do we stop going after our dreams with the determination of our childhood selves? When do we start believing that what’s possible is likely improbable and that our potential is limited to who we are on paper?
Rejection: Instead of empowering us, rejection weakens our ambitions. The nagging voice of self-doubt kicks in, and suddenly we begin to question our talents and strengths. Our lifelong goals are quickly dismissed as foolish whims or silly fantasies.
Comparison: Comparison, one of the most notorious villains, breeds insecurity and envy. We measure ourselves against our neighbors, colleagues, or siblings and we always lose. Why? Because our minds fail to take note of the ways in which we are already contented. We falsely believe that our lives should reflect the lives of those we admire without considering their struggles that go unwitnessed, their hopes that are left unfulfilled.
Distraction: Our days are full of interruptions. As to-do lists grow, leisure time shrinks; plans are put on hold and our desires slowly fade into the background. If we try to do everything, we lose sight of what inspires us. We will often be busy, but there will come a day when we won’t be able.
Chaos: Life is messy. As children, much of life’s messes are cleaned up for us and we remain blissfully naïve to their interference. As adults, when our path goes off course, we bear the responsibility of righting it and our priorities can be altered in an instant.
Trauma: Few of us will go through life without experiencing some kind of trauma. For many, this can lead to temporary or life-long consequences of a physical, mental, or emotional nature. When we experience a traumatic event, our view of the world and our place within it can be radically altered.
Peer pressure: A parent living vicariously through her young daughter steers her toward ballet instead of tee-ball. A talented art student considers changing majors because he’s worried about what his friends might say. It’s easy to succumb to the expectations of those we care about in order to please them and avoid judgment. But soon, we’re living in a reality constructed by our fears instead of by who we know ourselves to be.
Reality checks: We all reach an age at which we are confronted with the news that we will never be a dog, a unicorn, or a train when we grow up no matter how hard we try. Eventually we settle on concert pianist or firefighter until we learn about the level of commitment each of these roles entails and find ourselves back at square one. There will always be a reason not to pursue something. There will always be a chapter left unwritten if we don’t.
Our confidence, unrivaled as children, is prone to any number of threats as we grow older. But we can choose to pursue our passions as we did in earlier times, when our biggest worry was running out of paper. We can learn from rejection, and let it fuel our journey instead of diminishing our growth. We can measure ourselves against ourselves and celebrate how much we have achieved. We can seek quiet spaces to remind ourselves of what we are working toward, and devise solutions to that which deters us. When life happens, we can respond as best we know how; we can accept, rebel, wallow, or retreat. But we can always return, and pick up not where we were, but where we find ourselves now.