I read a comment in Forbes magazine by Henry George. He said, “The fundamental principle of human action… is that men seek to gratify their desires with the least exertion.”
And there’s the rub. There’s the difference between what we say we want and what we’re willing to settle for. It’s like the high-school kid who tells his counselor that he wants to be a physician, and whose grades are C’s and D’s.
Sure, he wants to be a doctor, but only if there isn’t too much hard work involved.
I’ve often thought that therein also lies the crux of the mid-career identity crisis so common among men. You wake up one morning—usually a rainy Monday—look at yourself in the mirror, before you’ve showered and dressed, and gets a world-record sinking feeling. He’s 40, and he suddenly realizes those insurance people know what they’re talking about when they deal in mortality tables, and that there’s one whopping disparity between what he’s accomplished and what you used to think he’d accomplish. And often a very similar crisis happens to women.
“What happened, though?” he wonders. “Where did all those years go? And what’s he been doing all that time? And, more importantly, where are you going? What about all those young dreams?”
Voilà! Identity crisis—he’s not the person he intended to become.
And what happened was that he was comfortable; he had a job he could handle with raises along the way, 3 square meals a day, a family (these are not in the order of their importance, necessarily), a house—well, actually, it was what the other guys were doing, too. And then those young dreams had been a bit amorphous—a little fuzzy around the edges. The thing is that while he may not be the person he intended to become, he was the person he settled for. He really has what he wanted after all.
I had a call the other day from an older woman I know, and she said, “You know, when I was a girl, I wanted more than anything to learn to play the piano, but my parents couldn’t afford it. And there was a super private school I wanted to go to, but they couldn’t afford that, either.”
I asked her if she had learned to play the piano later on, after she left home.
She said no. I reminded her that she could have learned to play every instrument in the Boston Symphony during the time she’d wasted since then.
I told her that blaming her parents was the easy way out. People who would love to play an instrument, or seek a good education, can do it one way or another, even if they have to teach themselves, as countless individuals have proved.
So I won the argument and infuriated a nice woman, I had exploded a myth she’d been clinging to for 40 years. And I reminded her that there was still plenty of time.