Like most people, I occasionally schmooze. Like most people, I don’t enjoy it. Being a college student, my small talk has bounced around from coursework, to extracurriculars, to the snow, and almost always: “What do you want to do?”
This is a familiar iteration of the classic icebreaker “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with the end chopped off, because I guess I’m grown up now. And though this question seems inoffensive and casual, answering truthfully requires time.
It isn’t easy to dream aloud these days. I find myself more honest about my aspirations in cover letters than I am with my friends. What we want to be—our “dream job”—is a sensitive topic, because it allows others to measure how much we’ve succeeded—or failed—in life. Consequently, I find it uncommon for people to discuss their hopeful futures without a degree of reticence.
Dreams, when shared, are often prefaced by meek hesitations; they become the caboose in a long string of ambivalent phrasings (“I mean, I think it would be cool to be a….”). There’s the fear that we don’t stack up to the grandeur of our dreams, and that in confessing them, we’ll be viewed as foolish.
This wasn’t always the case. When we were younger, big dreams were endearing. In high school, I babysat my neighbor’s little daughters. The oldest girl often discussed her big plans for the future. “My dream is to go to college. I want to go Harvard, Yale, or Quinnipiac.”
The inclusion of Quinnipiac, a local school, implied that these might be the only the universities she was aware of at the time; but, all the same, the simplicity and ease of her admission was, in a word, adorable. All of the aspiring astronauts I know are younger than ten, and this is normal.
Isn’t it ironic that the least qualified to go to space aggregate in such large quantities? I could say the same about those who want to be superheroes. There’s some humor in a child’s ambition. We smile because kids are naïve, but they’re allowed to be. They are merely children, and they don’t know any better. Four year olds are allowed to believe they can go to the moon because to them, it’s only just outside their window.
It’s different when adults have dreams. As mature, realistic people, we are expected to have an understanding of the world, to acclimate to its struggles and its challenges, and to realize how difficult it is to make it out there. We recognize that to follow a dream is to charge headlong into a path of known resistance, and that our only flimsy propeller is the hope that we’re good enough. Shouldn’t we know better than to dream?
Of course not. Bowdoin students are Bowdoin students because of their passion, determination and ambition. Look around: the snow, the chapel, Sundae Sunday. It was a dream that got us here.
Having dreams isn’t the trouble, it’s admitting that we have them. Dighton Spooner shouldn’t know more about my aspirations than my roommate, but he does. It’s become difficult to be that person who openly believes in herself, because she is the person who is openly willing to get hurt. The tendency these days to be ironic, aloof and non-committed makes it difficult for us to be genuine, to be vulnerable. Irony has made it hard to talk casually about our dreams.
Don’t be fooled; I’m not trying to write a thinly-veiled condemnation of hipster culture, but I do think that the abundance of irony in our lives prevents a willingness to act sincerely and slows our willingness to open up. Irony is like this fashionable coat that makes us into opaque blobs of indecipherable feelings, trading barbs and witty quips, terrified by our own admission of something genuine and repulsed by someone else’s. It isn’t inherently bad—long live the moustache—but ironic self-expression can obscure who we really are.
In a culture where we’d rather be clever than genuine, we’re increasingly more uncomfortable with sincerity and vulnerability. It feels awkward to admit that we want something badly, especially when that thing is hard to get. There’s the worry that we’ll be judged in some way, that vulnerability will be perceived as pathetic.
So tell your roommate about that internship you’re applying for. She won’t judge you. She probably applied, too. You want to be a writer? Don’t be embarrassed to say so. Maybe you aren’t Shakespeare yet, but don’t ever forget that we’re in college for a reason, and this is just the first step to getting somewhere great.