Stop Normalizing, Idealizing “Exceptional”

My granddaughter loves Disney Junior, and while she was watching and eating breakfast, a transition commercial announced with excessive glee: “Dream big and never give up!”

And all I can think is: What total and harmful crap.

Because our cultural narrative that normalizes and idealizes “exceptional” has been gnawing at me lately.

I have always bristled a the horse manure sloganification we heap on children: You can be anything you want to be! Reach for the stars!

Part of my concern is that this idealizing of exceptional to the degree that we make it the norm that everyone must aspire to be exceptional (a result impossible since once everyone achieved that, no one would be exceptional) feeds into our cultural ignorance about outliers: Make any generalized claim about a topic people don’t believe despite the evidence or don’t understand, and the typical response will be something like: “O, yea, see this anecdote of mine about an outlier!”

But my direct concern about “Dream big and never give up!” is how this cultural hokum drives our alienation and anxiety, especially among children.

Why can’t we allow people to be happy and content with their mediocrity, their normalcy, their average abilities and aspirations?

George Clooney and I are about the same age, but he has mega-dollars and mega-fame—and, damn it, he is very pretty.

If his exceptionality is the basis for my self-worth, my happiness, I am royally screwed, languishing under the anxiety that I just didn’t dream big enough and I gave up in my quest to be pretty, popular, and wealthy.

So, all you kids out there, and all you languishing adults trapped under the avalanche of “Dream big and never give up!,” let me offer a much healthier dictum: Dream big and never give up? No! Dream appropriate to you and then give it your best effort; and then, feel free to change your mind and levels of effort—and you may want to be OK with not making any of that work.

And feel free to tell all those Dream-Big merchants to kiss off.


4 thoughts on “Stop Normalizing, Idealizing “Exceptional””

  1. I was a small child in the 80s when (I think?) this kind of sloganizing was taking off. It didn’t help that I was already an outlier in several ways (some good, some bad, some that seemed bad at the time but which I would not change now), and that because I was obviously poor, some teachers were convinced that I needed Extra Encouragement and fed into it. At 37, I’m STILL convinced I should be a bestselling author, an astronaut, or personally fixing climate change (or all three!) right now.

    In real life, I sold a few short stories ten years ago and have yet to finish a novel; I’m flailing around blindly in grad school; and I have a crappy part-time job at a city park. It’s very hard to be okay with that.

  2. I agree, and I don’t. How do we know what’s appropriate to dream? Too often our dreams are quashed by naysayers and if only we’d dared to dream and try a little harder, who knows what we may have achieved. However, you are correct in that we need to work it out for ourselves and not compare ourselves to others. We are all outliers in our own way. There is nobody else just like us. Cut your daughter some slack and allow her to dream. She has plenty of time to figure out her future.

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