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January 29, 2003

This was written for an online collaboration, where many writers write about the same topic.

The "If…" Project: October 2000 (Archive) 

If you were asked to share your wisdom with a child, which life lesson would you teach? What do you wish someone had told you?  

The answer to both questions is the same: Don’t settle. 

Follow your dreams. Don’t let anybody talk you into settling for less. They may be the people you love and respect most in the world, but they are not you. They can only see things filtered through their own viewpoint. Don’t settle for something easier than what you truly want because you are afraid. You can do it, and it will be worth it in the long run. Don’t listen to the people who want you to fail and get hurt, but also don’t listen to the people who want to protect you from ever failing and getting hurt. You’re going to fail, and you’re going to get hurt, regardless. You might as well be failing and getting hurt in pursuit of what’s important to you, rather than in the constant drag of a mediocre but “safe” life. 

I have a young cousin who wants to be a fighter pilot. At eleven years old, he knew he already had one major strike against him—poor eyesight. He sat at a table drawing a detailed picture of a fighter plane, explaining to me how he was going to need to have surgery on his eyes in order to achieve his dream. I told him to go for it, to never, ever let anybody tell him he can’t do it. Maybe he’ll become a fighter pilot. Maybe surgery won’t repair his eyes enough to allow it. But he deserves the chance to try. I think he was surprised at the vehemence of my reaction, but I wish somebody had said that to me as I sat at a table writing and dreaming. 

This is in no way a criticism of my parents. They raised me the way they were raised, and did what they felt was best. I love them dearly, and think I had the most wonderful childhood in the world. But they taught me to settle, as, I imagine, their parents taught them, not realizing how quickly the world was changing around them. Finishing high school was a nice accomplishment, but college was a luxury, and unnecessary to getting a good job. Being a quick study and a reliable employee was more important. Dream all you want, but set your sights on a reliable job. It doesn’t matter if the pay is lousy, as long as it’s a steady job. You can exercise some self-control and do without the nice things in life that other people have. 

Ah, yes, the “other people.” I grew up knowing that anything nice was for “other people.” “Other people” had nice toys and clothes. I settled for cheap toys that I cherished and hand-me-down, out-of-date clothes. “Other people” got good jobs and worked in offices. I settled for minimum wage jobs and abused my body cleaning toilets and working in manufacturing plants. “Other people” became doctors and lawyers and writers. “Other people” had money for higher education so they could pursue their dreams. I honestly had no idea that there was financial aid available to people who couldn’t afford college. I just assumed it was yet one more thing that was only for “other people.” 

If only somebody had believed I could succeed, instead of trying to protect me from the consequences of failure! If only somebody had told me I didn’t have to settle, that it was OK to follow my dreams, that it was OK to fail now and then in the pursuit of my dreams! 

I wish somebody had told me what I told my cousin. I wish somebody had told me to never settle for less than what I truly wanted, for less than what I knew I was capable of. Sometimes I wonder how far I could have gone in life if somebody had told me even once that I didn’t have to settle.

I am sure my cousin thought I was absolutely nuts at the time, but I hope that someday, when things get tough for him, as they certainly will once he grows up and enters the real world, something will spark a memory and he'll recall what his strange older cousin said to him one day when he was a kid. And he will refuse to settle. And he will become a fighter pilot, or whatever his dream is by then. And when his children start dreaming their dreams, he will tell them the same thing. Don't settle. And, in some small way, I'll have passed on a legacy from my experiences. And it will have all been worth it.