“Compared to the possibilities in life, the impossibilities are vastly more numerous.
What I don’t like to hear adults tell people your age is that you can be president or anything else you want to be. That’s not even remotely true.
The truth is that you can run for president, and that’s all. In our wonderfully free society, you can try to be just about anything, but your chances of success are another thing entirely.”
~ Marilyn vos Savant, recognized by Guinness Book of World Records for Highest IQ, responding to a young person’s letter in her Parade column, March 2, 2003
I was recently listening to this interview between online business and marketing expert, Marie Forleo, and best-selling author and spiritual teacher, Marianne Williamson.
In the interview, Forleo and Williamson discuss Williamson’s recently released book “The Law of Divine Compensation: On Work, Money and Miracles”, which is based on Williamson’s work with the teachings of the “Course in Miracles”, applied to work, money and career.
In the video promo for the book, Marianne reads,
“When we think of ourselves as channels for the infinite creative energy of the universe, we think higher thoughts than ‘how will I get a job?’ We are lifted to a realm of consciousness where questions like ‘how may I best serve the world’ take precedence over ‘what can I get out of this’? Within that realm, we naturally do get a job, we naturally do create money, and we naturally do produce an outer prosperity that reflects the prosperity in our hearts. This doesn’t mean we don’t have to do the foot work, but our feet become guided by a wisdom we might not have even known we had.”
I was quite struck by a few things while listening to this interview (it is a long interview and worth listening to in full if you have the time). I’m someone who has had a deep respect for Marianne Williamson as a teacher and writer. I don’t agree with everything she says, but I have learned a lot from her writing. I also think she has lived quite an extraordinary human life.
I even conducted a personal interview with Marianne on my website about six months ago to discuss the important work she is doing to get women involved in the political process in America through her Sister Giant event.
I found myself quite compelled by some of Williamson’s arguments in this interview. The basic message being that if you put yourself in a position of choosing love over fear and remove all negative and limiting beliefs, the universe will find ways to support you in overcoming your internal and external obstacles and compensate you with everything you need in life, career, and money.
A very attractive sentiment to those of us facing hard economic times. But as I continued to listen to the interview, I wondered what, if any, strong evidence, proof, or case studies existed to back up some of the assumptions that were being delivered as self-evident truths.
How many people who had followed these teachings were now working in their dream job? Fully successful and financially secure? And how many weren’t? I had no idea, and the question never came up in the interview.
After a while, I also found myself facing a unique concern about the potential impact of this message on young people of my generation. Let me explain why.
Work, Money and Generation Y
Williamson states in her book that if we can rise above our limited beliefs and above thoughts of “I need to find a job”, to a realm where we are aiming only to serve God through our unique work and highest purpose in the world, then we will inherently become receivers of miracles that will support landing us the perfect job and everything we need will be provided for us.
But, in a time when my generation is facing some of the worst job prospects in a contracting economy, I wondered how Marianne’s teaching will be interpreted through the unique lens of my generation.
The reality is that many in my generation now come out of school with an unconsciously carried belief that the world will in some ways cater to us because we have been taught all through school that we are special and unique, that we deserve the best, and that we should have work that allows us to fully be ourselves and serve our sense of highest sense of meaning and purpose.
This phenomenon has been documented by social scientists such as Jean M. Twenge, who has been tracking the changing trends in education and parental practices since the 1980s and its effects on the worldviews of Gen X and Gen Y. She states,
“Generation Me [Gen X and Y] has never known a world that put duty before self, and believes that the needs of the individual should come first. This is not the same thing as being selfish – it is captured, instead, in the phrases we so often hear: “Be yourself,” “Believe in yourself,” “You must love yourself before you can love someone else.” These are some of our culture’s most deeply entrenched beliefs, and Generation Me has grown up hearing them whispered in our ears like subliminal messages that impact all the ways we make meaning. We live in a time when high self-esteem is encouraged from childhood, when young people have more freedom and independence than ever. But today’s young people have been raised to aim for the stars at a time when it is more difficult than ever to get into college, find a good job, and afford a house. Their expectations are very high just as the world is becoming more competitive, so there’s a huge clash between their expectations and reality.”
It’s not really our fault, but most of us haven’t been taught the real foundations and sacrifice of what it takes to make it in the everyday workforce. This is at least a part of why statistics on high turnover, youth unemployment, and the amount of young people in their 20s and 30s who are still living at home with their parents, are so high.
The Blindspot of Infinite Possibility Seekers
While I of course appreciate the impulse to want to encourage people to think beyond limited beliefs and to envision infinite potentials for their lives, as Williamson and Forleo implore, my concern remains in the lack of nuance made in many of these conversations about the complex set of variables that lead people to success, or lack of it, in our present economy.
I’ve spoken to a lot of young people about these issues, as other young writers often see me as a young writer who has followed my path and will one day “make it”.
I continually tell them that I honestly have no idea. I’m 29 years old, I’m smart, and I’ve had some relative success with my writing for sure, but that doesn’t guarantee anything for my writing career. I also work 11 hour days at a regular job just to pay off my student loan debt and support myself. A lot of my life is filled with the tedium of the everyday work and stress, just like everyone else in the working class.
This is why I feel it really important to give young people a balanced view that both supports our emerging creativity, infinite energy, and potential, but is also informed by a realistic assessment of the risks that come with making different choices.
In my view, to take a generation that is already struggling with bucket loads of school debt, no real job security in an increasingly fraught economy, an unconscious entitlement disposition, and then add into that mix a message that we shouldn’t settle for anything less than our “highest purpose” and that we will be financially compensated by God if we follow our hearts, is, I think, a potentially dangerous cocktail.
The reason is because the success stories that we hear, and that are sold to us, of people who made it doing exactly what they love are, the ones who are visible because they made it. This is awesome for them and we should celebrate it, but we also need to keep in perspective that they don’t represent the majority.
The inspiring stories of success that we hear on Oprah and cling to with hope for our own lives are representative of a small minority. They don’t account for the millions of artists, writers, entrepreneurs and creative thinkers of all types who held just as good of intentions, talent, and passion, but never made it for a variety of complex reasons.
So why do so many talented and passionate people not make it?
It might be that they just didn’t believe and follow their hearts enough or didn’t adhere to this or that spiritual practice rigorously enough. Or it could be that they had too many limiting internal beliefs around money and success that held them back. That is always a possibility. Or it could be part of the picture.
It could also be true that they simply had a stream of bad luck, that they didn’t quite have the right looks or personality to open the right doors in a competitive market, that their art was ahead of its time, that they had biological inherited chemical and emotional imbalance that hindered their social skills, that they didn’t know the right people, or that they simply didn’t have the privilege of time and money to write that book that would have become a best-seller because they were too busy working three jobs just to support their kids.
It could also be that they couldn’t break the laws of supply and demand. The society had room to pay 500 ballerinas, and they were the 501st most talented and accomplished ballerina on the list, so they couldn’t make a living from it. Or, it could be a unique blend of some combination of the above.
I’m not trying to promote anyone taking a victimized stance on their life. I don’t think believing we are the victim of our circumstances is any more helpful than believing we can do anything we want. Both extremes reflect a largely self-oriented approach to seeing life and our place in it.
It is empowering to take responsibility for our lives and choices, but we can do that without having to disregard the multiple factors that that determine our success in the world, which are both internal and external to our power and control.
The great thing about living in a free society, as Marilyn vos Savant states in the quote at the beginning of this article, is that we can strive to be anything we want. And we should be allowed to! We can try to be the president, or a painter, or whatever else our heart desires. But in the freedom of choice and sea of options that now face us, we should also be realistically aware of the risks that come with any choice we might make, so that we can make informed decisions, whatever they may be.
We are rarely told that our chances of success are not equal to our level of desire, or even necessarily our level of talent. I truly wish this wasn’t the case. I wish I could tell every young person to follow their bliss and everything else would work itself out, but I think this is a naïve and potentially dangerous assumption. I never tell young people that they can make it as a writer simply because they love it and they are good at it.
No writing career is ever guaranteed, no matter how passionate you are. Making it as a successful writer, like anything else, depends on many different factors, not excluding some amount of blind luck.
The other reality is that unless there is a whole-scale transformation of our current economic system, there is simply no way that everyone will be able to live up to their highest purpose and potential in their lifetime. We will always need someone to take out our garbage, to clean our schools, and to serve our food. Serving our greatest purpose through our job and career is, at present, the privilege of a few, not the experience of the majority. I hope this increasingly changes over time, but right now, it is the reality.
There are of course some important partial truths that we can retain from the spiritual conversations on career, purpose and money.
I do think it is worthwhile to strive for what we love, to dismantle whatever limiting beliefs we might have around success and money, and also to aim to serve something greater than ourselves.
I don’t wish to clamp down on anyone’s potential, nor starve anyone of infinite possibility. But it is also important to realize there are many factors at play that determine what our success will be in the world, and some which are simply out of our control.
So, we may have to work that nine-five office job to pay off our student loan debt and gain work experience skills while we pursue our passion to become a writer on the side, and that is ok.
Building a financial foundation doing a job we don’t totally love or that doesn’t feel like our highest calling is not a failure. In fact, it can be a means to a greater end, and may even just offer us the foundation, stability, and humble discipline we need to one day achieve our larger dreams.
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Assistant Ed: Josie Huang/Ed: Bryonie Wise