Perhaps the phrase that will earn someone my absolute steeliest glare would be the words: “That’s just the way it is.”
“Why do I have to print this two-paged document she emailed me when it would have been quicker for her to print it herself?” “That’s just the way it is.”
I’m sure many of these things have reasons maybe beyond my comprehension or began with reasonable logic but have since been diluted and rendered irrelevant. But what about when it comes to slightly more conceptual things like “Why do I have to spend 10 years at this job level before I might get promoted?”
When we were toddlers, our parents’ words were law. We had to clean our rooms, eat our veggies “or else…” and the ominous uncertainty was enough to make us do it. But let’s be honest, the worst that was going to happen was a talking-to or a slap-on-the-wrist (I’m talking about relatively normal households here. Lord knows there are some creative parents with bizarre methods of discipline. A friend of mine said his father would make him face the wall then he’d start humming tunes from the 50s and he wasn’t allowed to step away from the wall until he’s correctly identified the song). As teenagers, our teachers and tests became our governing bodies, doling out punishments and rewards. But at the end of the day, school is school—you leave it at some point and nobody cares about where you went or looks at your transcript beyond your first job. But the one thing that our parents and teachers have successfully instilled in us beyond these safe bubbles is the tendency to follow rules, to narrate our lives through the lenses of the American Dream—go to a good school, get a good job, get married, have a family. And within that, there are also guidelines, and within that there are more and it’s like a never-ending-story-onion-thing. But it might actually be more a smelly onion than a cute never-ending story because it also makes us put arbitrary limits on ourselves.
My boyfriend recently decided to go to business school because he was fed up with the corporate ladder at his enormous company. Apparently, almost all the managerial positions are occupied by people over the age of 40. Okay so maybe there’s a little bit of that entitlement that social psychologists have attributed to us Millennials, and the older generations of “Lifers” aka people who got a job and stayed at it until retirement, would say we’re being impatient knuckleheads, but why does someone have to go through the motions if he or she has a better way? If we only do what our predecessors have done then progress would be rendered moot.
Steve Jobs (quoted by Ashton Kutcher) had said: When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way that it is and you have to live your life inside the world and try not to get in too much trouble and maybe get an education and get a job and make some money and have a family. But life can be a lot broader than that when you realize one simple thing and that is that everything around us that we call life was made up by people that are no smarter than you. And you can build your own thing, you can build your own life that other people can live in.
I know a guy who at 27 is an International Director for Starwood Hotels. Of course, I asked him: HOW??? He landed a Sales Executive position before he even graduated from college so he was obviously sharp to begin with, but as he rose through the ranks through hard work and supportive mentors, he eventually found himself offered a high managerial position, but guess what? He turned. It. Down. He looked at the job description and found that it didn’t require any traveling, something he desperately wanted in his career. So he countered them, not by whining about wanting to travel. He did his research and said, “If you allow me to manage accounts in China, I will increase your revenue by x in four years.”
Ballsy? Yes. Were they surprised? Yes. But did he get it? Yes. That’s when I realized, most of our lives, especially when we’re still young, we’re told to keep our heads down and just be grateful for the opportunities we’re given. But if we know we’re capable, we have the agency to receive these opportunities on our terms. As my boss always says, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” So don’t let precedence or your peers make you afraid to ask. Your life is yours to build.