Destined for greatness, headed for mediocrity?
My generation has a serious problem with self-image. Namely, our belief in ourselves outweighs our actual abilities. BBC News kicked off the new year by finding that, among America’s young adults, expectations have grown steadily while abilities have not necessarily grown along with them, resulting in what one scholar has coined, “ambition inflation.” Our parents raised us to believe that we can be whatever we want to be, but the reality is that many of us are not going to achieve our goals.
I am writing this article because I’m terrified that I am among those who were raised to believe they are more special, more capable, than they actually are.
No. I am writing this article because I have a confession to make. A confession I have shared with very few because I am afraid of letting down the ones I love, afraid of disappointing a vast group of people who have supported me and shared my belief that I am able to accomplish anything I set my mind to.
I did not get the Fulbright.
Hundreds of man hours, inestimable sacrifices, and an inconceivable amount of work went into applying for a Fulbright grant to conduct oral history research for the writing of How Joe Met Franka, a biographical memoir. However, despite my belief that I can be what I will to be, I was not among the chosen.
In the wake of this news I took stock of my life. I am 32 years old. I have one very costly degree that I have no intention of using, and in May I will be graduating with a not-so-lucrative MFA in poetry. I refuse to earn a living with the former, and I am hesitant to travel down the typical path of the latter. Why? Because I believe I am destined for greatness.
My best friend says that I think too big. She is among those who believes — whether she has been fooled or not I cannot yet say — that I am capable of anything. Yet she herself is practical enough to have a steady, high-paying job, and I am unwilling to trade in my dreams for the same.
What not getting the Fulbright really means, for me, is that I am in the same camp as the rest of my fellow soon-to-be grads: I have to figure out what I am going to do with my life, namely how I am going to support myself.
I can teach. I went to graduate school, in part, to do just that. However, making a living teaching college English is no easy feat. The average MFA graduate works as an Adjunct Lecturer, teaching one course per school per semester, and is paid around $3,500 for that course, no benefits. In order to make a living at this in the New York City area I’d need to work about four adjunct positions per semester just to make ends meet. If I don’t make a name for myself as a published author, I’ll continue along this path for about 10 years before I get an actual staff position. That is a rough barrel to be staring down when you are 32 years old and headed toward marriage and kids.
About a week before I found out about the Fulbright a friend forwarded me a job listing from the Academy of American Poets, a position for which I am the perfect fit. But I hesitated to apply. I had the Fulbright to find out about, I reasoned. But the truth is, I can’t imagine myself working another office job. I can’t see myself going back to florescent lighting and nine-to-five hours. And I can’t see myself continuing what I am doing now, either — balancing a couple of low-paying adjunct jobs with some part-time personal assistant and contractor work. I just can’t shake the feeling that I am meant for something bigger.
The truth is, I still believe I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to. I still dream big. Could I possibly, after all these years of slaving away to make my dreams come true, be destined for greatness but headed for mediocrity?
The answer has to be no. No, I cannot see myself giving up on my dreams and settling for mediocrity. No, I cannot see myself simply “making it work” instead of making my dreams come true.
Am I delusional? Perhaps. Do I suffer from ambition inflation? I very well may. But I am not prepared to give up and settle when it comes to something as important as what I do with my life. Perhaps I think too big, but those who achieve greatness are rarely accused of thinking too small.
Since finding out I did not get the Fulbright, I have turned to the words of Goethe as my new mantra: “Then indecision brings its own delays, / And days are lost lamenting o’er lost days. / Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute; / What you can do, or dream you can, begin it; / Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
I’ve dreamed of writing this book for over 10 years. I remember sitting in a fellow iPinionite’s kitchen a few years ago and telling her my vision. “Whatever you do,” she said, “you must write this book.” At a conference not long ago my teacher was a literary agent, and I had shared my book proposal with his class. When the conference was over he emailed me to say that when the book was finished he hoped I would contact him for representation.
These are signs, and I am a believer in signs. I have a great idea, and, I believe, the ability to see that idea through to completion and success. Were I to sell that dream out now in favor of the easier path of mediocrity, I’d be doing a great disservice to myself, if not the world.
My horoscope recently said, “Certain developments may not have been of your choosing, but they have actually begun a positive process that will lead to a most welcome destination. You and you alone have what it takes to do what must be done.” This recent development — not getting the Fulbright — was not of my choosing. But it happened this way for a reason, even if that reason is only to make me work hard to achieve my goals. I, and I alone, must take matters into my own hands and make this dream a reality.
I’ve decided to go to Israel in the fall to research and write this book, with or without the Fulbright. Even if it is on my own dime. Even if I have to make great sacrifices to make it work. I believe that I can be what I will to be, that I am destined for a greatness of my own making.