A thought-provoking article in The Atlantic this month takes on animated children’s movies for the overused, formulaic message so many of them portray of the underdog rising above the odds to fulfill his dreams. The writer, Luke Epplin, lists a number of recent examples, in which the main character rejects a life of what they perceive to be mediocrity to fulfill an otherwise impossible dream, becoming extraordinary in the process.

Epplin argues that this message is misguided, and that it fuels the narcissistic tendencies of today’s generations. Kids nowadays are being taught that it’s possible to do anything they can think of — all they have to do is believe.

In Disney's "Dumbo," an elephant defies what's possible to fly with his ears.

Disney’s “Dumbo” defies what’s possible to fly with his ears. Photo by Henry Mestre | CC by 2.0

The article makes some good points. I can point out few of my peers who are content with making a life goal of landing a decent job. Instead, we talk about rising above the mundane to live fulfilling lives.

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Lately I’ve been obsessed with travel. Though since I can’t afford much and I’ve been impossibly lazy about renewing my passport, I’ve been keeping my sights small — with weekend trips to Texas, Boston and Pennsylvania, most recently.

But what I thought was the wanderlust that inevitably comes with being in your 20s and facing the prospect of an endless future of days spent at a desk from 9 to 5 may be something else entirely: the need to relocate.

A year ago, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere but New York City. Now, it’s all I can do not to pack up my stuff and run off blissfully into the horizon.

I keep feeling like there’s a whole other life out there waiting to be lived.

So why haven’t I done it yet, you ask? Well, the simple answer is that I’m afraid. Afraid of anything that is not structured. Afraid of failure. I like rules. I like to know how to get from point A to B. I like to know that making a certain decision will lead me to a certain destination. Honestly, if there was some way I could live my life according to a roadmap, I’d at least consider it.

destination signs

Photo: Unknown via junglesinparis

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(Photo credit: ralph and jenny)

My friend sent me an article from the Harvard Business Review blog yesterday that defines the problem facing Generation Y in three words: “Follow your passion.”

It’s a variation on a well-worn argument — basically we’ve been told our whole lives to set huge expectations for ourselves and pursue our dreams, and then we received a rude awakening when we grew up, graduated college with tons of debt and moved back into our parents’ house with very little hope of a comfortable independence right away or a stable well-paying job where we can actually do what we love — both things that seemed to be promised when we were starting out.

Cal Newport, the author of the article and a professor at Georgetown University, writes that the problem is just that, the misplaced expectations that “following your passion” will automatically — and immediately — lead to success.

Good point. But to the adage “follow your passion,” I’d like to add a few more well-meaning pieces of advice that I heard over and over again growing up:

“The sky is the limit.”

“If you can dream it, you can do it.”

“Never settle for anything less than the best.”

It’s not that this isn’t good advice. I love that I didn’t grow up with a cap on my dreams. It’s just that they only tell half of the story.

What I’ve come to realize too late is that we’ve been fed a paradox. Our parents, teachers, coaches and counselors told us to “go for it,” but they also gave us some other, albeit less-emphatic, advice.

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