Friday, June 20, 2014

Shell Games: a Graduation Post

One night last week while I was making dinner I heard some adorable commentary coming from the living room, where my husband was playing with our son. I looked in on them and discovered my husband had been hiding an orange ping-pong ball under identical plastic cups and shuffling them around, concealing the location of the ball. In essence: a shell game. Either by skill or by some fluke, the Boy kept guessing the location correctly. A con artist in the making?

Well no, probably not. I played the same game with him myself the following day, and I tricked him more often than not.

That is how these things work, after all. Con artists lure their victims in with an easy game they are guaranteed to win, then when the stakes get high, the game gets tough. The victims are left scratching their heads and wondering how the prize ever got under the wrong shell.

I was thinking about shell games again today because of graduation. All the high school seniors in our town graduated this past weekend. (And congratulations to all of you!) There were parties and diplomas and, let's not forget, graduation speeches.

Back when I graduated high school I had the honor of giving a speech. I don't remember what I said, only that I used the numbers of our graduation year to say four different things about our class. At the time I thought I was being epically inspiring, but I suspect I was epically boring instead. Regardless, the goal was inspiration, because hey, that's what everyone expects. Generally graduation speeches all come down to one thing:


Folks, this is The Big One. All that talk about dreams, about becoming who you are meant to be, about doing all you can do? That's what this is. Here, have a definition if you aren't convinced.

But here's where the shell game thing comes into play. I think sometimes self-actualization can be like that con artists' game. "Do what you love, and love what you do." It's such an easy formula. It's something to feel good about. It's a promise that if we just figure out who we are and what we enjoy, life will be a piece of cake. We get lured in because self-actualization seems so easy.

Only it isn't.

A lot of inspirational messages would have you believe that your self-actualization is right here, just under this little shell, so easy to get to. But often times in life you can follow those simple steps to your dream, peak under the shell, and then find that the dream was actually under a different shell instead.

Everything worth doing in life has challenges. Maybe you love what you're doing because it's never been difficult for you. Well, one day you're going to find that what you're doing suddenly isn't so easy. Will you still love it then? Have you found a dream that you want to pursue despite the challenges?

Maybe you love what you're doing because it's fun. That's great! But there are a lot of other fun things out there too. Are you going to become crippled with indecision when you have to make a choice between two great options?

The shell game of self-actualization is difficult. You might think you're following the dream, only to find yourself ten years down the road in this situation:


So how do you get where you're trying to go? Well, Neil Gaiman has some really great advice in his graduation speech from 2012. The bit about the mountain is particularly good (starting at 3:40). He says to think of your goal as a mountain, and every step of the way ask yourself, "Is this taking me closer to the mountain?"

But what if you have a whole lot of mountains? What if you've been hearing all your life that you can do anything, that the world is your oyster, that if you apply yourself, nothing can stand in your way, and now you have so many options in front of you that you have absolutely no idea which to choose (and a sinking suspicion that maybe you aren't as qualified as all those pep talks said you were)?

My advice? Just start somewhere. Go be productive. (Mike Rowe has a lot of good stuff to say about going out, learning a skill and getting to work, by the way. I really appreciate his message and admire him for getting it out there.) In my experience, I'm much more capable of choosing a path if I'm doing something than if I'm sitting around waiting for inspiration.

Once you've made a choice, don't let fear distract you. There are a lot of fears--fear of failure, fear that there's something better somewhere else (the grass, as they say, is always greener...), even fear of success. But remember that shell game we've been talking about? Distraction is how the con artist cheats. If you really want the prize, you can't let fear pull your attention away.

But above all, remember this: self-actualization isn't everything. It's great, don't get me wrong. But you can take all the "all about me" quizzes in the world and pursue your big dream until you finally catch it, and you still will only have seen a tiny portion of life. Work hard. Cultivate memories. Live intentionally.

And if the shell game tricks you and you find yourself miles from where you want to be, find a new goal and start again.


  1. My advice is "be a plumber." There are a lot of jobs out there that everyone wants: game designer, or author (sigh) are classic examples. Because everyone wants to do those things, you'll work long and hard for little pay. Few people, on the other hand, want to be plumbers, and the ones that take up the plunger can charge almost anything they want. They design games or play in a band in the evening.

    1. Yep! There are a lot more job opportunities for jobs like that.