Our culture is rich with esteem-boosting platitudes for young dreamers, but the assurances are dishonest and dangerous.

Telve-year-old Gwenyth has dark brown eyes and a fierce desire to change people’s negative perception of sharks. She attends West Oaks French Immersion school in Ontario, where she and about a dozen other kids who test as gifted, spend three days every other month exploring topics outside their usual curriculum. Most recently, they studied forensics, searching for clues, avoiding red herrings, and learning how scientists test for DNA evidence.

But it’s sharks that fascinate her. She’s determined to be a marine biologist some day and has given considerable thought to what she’ll need to achieve this. Her teacher, Mrs Ensing, who is optimistic about Gwenyth’s prospects, routinely tells her elite group that they can be anything they want to be.

Gwenyth likes her teacher but is troubled by this philosophy. ‘You can’t be anything,’ she says, ‘if you don’t manage to get the marks good enough, or if you have the wrong idea about it. There was a guy on YouTube who wanted to be a veterinarian and they made him watch a video of something happening to an animal and he fainted, so he didn’t get the job.’

Her skepticism is well-founded. A 2012 LinkedIn survey showed that roughly one in three adults are working at their ‘dream job’, which means that two in three are not. Gallup’s most recent State of the American Workplace poll came up with similar results when it concluded that 30 per cent of employees are ‘engaged’ in their work, while 52 per cent are ‘not engaged’ and 18 per cent are ‘actively disengaged’.

‘When you tell somebody: You can be anything,’ says Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me (2014), ‘that “anything” they’re thinking of is rarely a plumber or an accountant.’

Indeed, a 2011 survey of more than 5,000 children around the world revealed that while almost half of children in developing countries dreamed of becoming doctors and teachers, more than a quarter of American children aspire to such careers as professional athletes, singers and actors. When a grown‑up asks the inevitable: What do you want to be when you grow up?, most kids have an answer: video‑game developer; astronaut; back-up dancer for Rihanna. And many grown-ups will congratulate them for dreaming big, assuring them that, with hard work and a can-do attitude, they can be anything they want.

When your child is four or five, barring intellectual disabilities or severe behavioural diagnoses, anything does seem possible. A child shows an interest in art and we imagine his work eventually hanging in galleries. A talented runner, we think, might make the Olympics. Kids who love science are given microscopes and we begin to wonder if we should start saving up for college fees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Backing our hopes and theirs are the culture’s cheerleaders, led by viral convocation speeches and a steady stream of ‘overnight’ successes unveiled on reality shows and YouTube, all urging us to dream big and never give up.

Get the entire story on AEON

SHOP