The Dilemma of My Generation: When “You Can Do Anything!” Means, “You’d Better Make it Good!”

Not many people know this, but for the past several months I have been diligently pursuing applying to PhD programs in cultural anthropology.  Travel, different cultures, and many of the issues of applied anthropology have continued to fascinate me and as I’ve thought about what to do in life I’ve started to lean more towards further study of anthropology. I was thinking of pursuing the PhD because I wasn’t aware of much that could be done with just the master’s and because I thought having the PhD would give me the option of working in the non-profit sector or teaching in a university. I’m all set to take the GRE on Tuesday and over the past few weeks I have started contacting programs and asking more specific questions. Most programs require you to go into them with a very specific research question in mind and many recommend that you’ve already dialogued with a professor who would be willing to serve as your advisor. It’s a lot more work than simply filling out an application.

As I’ve started to get responses from people I’ve contacted I’ve become more and more discouraged. Not only has no one so much as said, “thanks for looking at our program” but they have by and large responded with an attitude like, “Why do you want to this? “ or “Why are you bothering me?” Yesterday I got in touch with a Wheaton grad who recently earned his PhD from the University of Virginia. He basically told me that if I get a PhD I will lose my faith, change all of my political views, and be completely unemployable because I’ll be overqualified to work with non-profits and I will be in a very, very competitive pool for the few available university positions that don’t even pay enough to support a family on.

I’ve become overwhelmed with the sense that maybe I am not pursuing this because it’s really the passion of my life and I know that it’s what I’m supposed to do, but rather that I’m pursuing it because I am so tired of not having goals or something to pursue and if I got into a PhD program that would give me something to spend the next 6-7 years working towards. Which probably is not a good enough reason.

I have a theory about people in my generation. Particularly people who have been blessed with a lot of opportunities. People who have good, supportive families and went to schools like Wheaton and have been told all of their lives that they are exceptional. The theory is this: being told that we are exceptional, having it drilled into our heads that we are destined for greatness has ruined us for ordinary life. Believing that I am extremely gifted and talented and that I could do anything I set my mind to and that I have been given privileges in order to do something amazing makes every ordinary, mundane day seem like a failure. I feel like I am not living up to my potential or to the expectations of all of these people who believe in me. I can see and agree that I have been given opportunities that not everyone gets and despite pulling my hair out trying to figure out what I’m meant to do with my life, I can’t help feeling that I’m squandering the gift of those opportunities. I feel that I have to (and want to) do something cool and significant and amazing with my life, but I have no earthly idea what it is and the feeling is beyond frustrating. Sometimes I feel like God is teasing me. Like he is saying, “I gave you all of these opportunities for a reason, but I’m not going to tell you what it is. But if you don’t figure it out on your own, you will be held accountable.” I know God’s not really like that, but sometimes it definitely feels that way.

It is the moral gem we learned from Spiderman, “With great privilege comes great responsibility.” I genuinely feel that if I don’t do something amazing with my life, I will have wasted it. Thank you, John Piper. And so today, as I sit in my cube and design flyers to sell properties and maintain databases, I feel that I am indeed wasting my precious life. Watching it slip past me day after day and week after week as I plod along doing the same thing with very few highs or lows to break the monotony.  I am striving to make the most of my days. To be a good friend, employee, co-worker, and wife. But mostly, this doesn’t feel like enough. Beyond the expectations of others, I’m disappointed in myself. And I am so afraid of life always being this way.  I am afraid I will finish life having seen and done so little. This is not at all a critique of those who do feel fulfilled by staying in one place or working a corporate job or just raising a family. But it is true that I have an insatiable desire to see and experience everything. I literally stay awake at night longing to see the canals in Venice and the Greek islands and the Great Barrier Reef and being afraid that I never will. It’s silly, I guess, but it’s true.

Every so often I strike out and choose a course of action from my list of possibilities (writing, non-profit work, academia, kindergarten teacher, pastry chef) and every time I am advised, “You shouldn’t pursue this unless you are 100% certain that this all you want to do in life ever, ever, ever.” And  between the “you can’t” s and the “you shouldn’t” s I’m advised to “wait” until I know. And I feel like I’m never going to just “know.” It’s completely unhelpful and infuriating, particularly when so many of my friends are in grad school or are already teachers or nurses or photographers, pursuing their chosen profession. Meanwhile I actually feel  hindered by all of my options. When you are led to believe that you can be anything you want and do anything you want and you are already an indecisive person (me!), it is a tremendous burden rather than a freedom to be asked to decide or to discern. Ultimately, all I want is to honor God with my life. To do what he has gifted me and called me to do. But I am so tired and so discouraged by doing nothing while I wait for him to tell me. And I’m tired of him not telling me. And I’m tired of feeling that any direction I try to move in is blocked.

This isn’t uplifting, but this is true. I know God has a purpose for my life, but I sure wish he’d share that information. And I know I’m not the only one.

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8 comments

  1. Spin around on your chair in your cubicle enough times until you are nauseated. And when you put your tiny hands to your tummy and look down, then know. . . Know that the ‘you’ that you are looking at the very real you – ARE all of those gifts and talents, opportunities, dreams and precious gems. It’s what makes up who you are! That’s all – with no expectations to perform. Exploring you, in the peace and beauty of the mundane, will be an out of this world – crazy and wonderful adventure.

    And . . . I’m not John Piper fan either. 🙂

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  2. firstly, I must say I love your blogs. I love when in pops into my facebook newsfeed and I manage to catch a glimpse into your life & transparency. It’s pretty crazy how lives can cross paths many years prior for a short time, yet fast forward 10 years, and it’s encouraging seeing how other people are living their lives today and being challenged and stretched in the same areas. We serve a very cool God. My brain does not understand how he does it all.

    This blog struck a cord with me. Mainly because I feel like I camped out here for a bit in my own life and wrestled with Jesus on “what to do” yet didn’t get a response and questioned my perspective and how I’d been trained to think. I ultimately began just making decisions and trusting that lack of clarity was actually in fact Him speaking….just now how I wanted to hear it. Maybe he trusted me to move forward and he loved me enough to bless me and prepare my way (whichever way I took).

    Growing up it was quite ingrained in me as well I could do anything…and I’m afraid at some level I still think the same. I’m just far more realistic these days, haha. After working a few years after grad school and managing a disappointing revolving door of new grads, I sure wish I could speak to fresh grads on dreaming big…but accepting that even if an entire generation has been taught to dream big and explore- it does not ever lessen the requirement to work harder and be teachable in the work environment. Passion does not outweigh substance in the work world. The ability to dream no longer makes you the exception but the standard. Accepting that a degree doesn’t qualify us but that our hard work and willingness to be a team player and work from the bottom up, instead of the middle up, sets you a part. In grad school, my last professor left me with some wise words, “it’s better to take the worst job at the best company and work up than take the best job at the worst company!” Oh how thankful I am for that advice!

    I know God is going to honor your heart, obedience and faith to step out. Looking back I think his silence in my own life was really him showing me he trusted me a bit (crazy thought for me) and he wanted me to really have the faith to believe that he works all things together for those who love him- including me. I dont think we ever KNOW KNOW KNOW. We trust Him and we act. I also learned that God is not always concerned about just my dreams and comfort and sometimes he has me in places not for my own benefit but for the person next to me. Cause at the end of the day, it’s really only the person next to me who should matter most to me. If I died tomorrow, I would not be concerned about my dreams I would be focused on my relationships.

    There are so many lessons to learn growing up. Our multi-tasking, culture hungry, deep thinking, tech savvy generation is not excused from foundational life lessons because we have been afforded easier paths in some areas. These are amazing lessons though to build our faith and challenge our hearts to really know the He is God, His plan for us good, His promises are true, and He is our sole provider and satisfaction. Nothing in life will fulfull our dreams and excite our heart like he will.

    I work with the college and new grads at my church and always end up finding quite a bunch of graduates holding onto the belief that they have failed or are missing out on feeling a “satisfaction” from a career path and job title. I always remind them at the end of the day people are more important. I have experienced some mountaintop moments in my career in a few short years, all of which Jesus orchestrated. Those moments though pale in comparison to the satisfaction of leading someone to Jesus, loving someone to freedom or discipling someone. If our satisfaction is really in Jesus, our career or education is merely a piece of the puzzle. It is not a sustaining mountaintop experience. I’m not discounting to dream big, I have God sized dreams now. I trust him to get me there, but I trust his satisfaction in the meantime is greater than me experiencing those things today.

    Sorry for this epic ramble! I so enjoy your honesty and the random peeks into another girls heart and journey as God is challenging and shaping us for a future that truly is bright, blessed and abundant. I’m a few steps ahead and have a job I love and am a testimony that he will direct you, he will connect your life with people who will unlock paths for you that you would have never even dreamed up yourself. Nothing in my current life was part of “my plan or timing” and is only representative of a God who used faith, dreaming, hard work, etc to trust me with this season. Keep believing and DON’T stop dreaming. You have been made for greatness….just balance it out now that the greatest satisfaction is when we are obedient to his voice/our season and if that means are doing things small in others eyes that it’s ok- You are still Living the Dream!

    Keep these lovely honest blogs coming! You are a blessing….and I can’t wait to see how God unfolds your story!

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    1. Renee,
      Thanks for your encouragement, for your wisdom, and for your reminders that God’s purpose for my life is bigger than a career path. I so appreciate your taking the time to read my stories and to share some of yours.

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  3. “being told that we are exceptional, having it drilled into our heads that we are destined for greatness has ruined us for ordinary life” this made my brain explode. And I completely agree. I’m constantly in the struggle of not feeling like I’m doing enough, and trying to balance my own expectations of myself with my perception of other’s expectations of me. I actually ended up here, reading your blog, because I was lying awake in bed thinking of all the things I’d like to accomplish…one day. And I had to get out of bed and write a few down to get them out of my head. But I’m grateful I came across this tonight, and I’m so grateful for you, always. Thank you for your honest, beautiful words.

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  4. I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who feels this way! If it makes you feel any better, I’m halfway through law school and still feeling like I’m not being “great” enough. It is so encouraging to know that someone I think is doing wonderful things feels the same way I do! This blog made my week and helped me get a little perspective. Thank you for being such a beautiful and vulnerable woman and sharing your intimate feelings with us!

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  5. Hey Lily!
    Wow, this blog pretty much sums up a lot of what I’ve been feeling for the last several years. I feel like, since I’ve been given so many opportunities, I must do something big with them. I always do think of that Spiderman quote, and of the Parable of the Talents. It makes me wonder if I should feel guilty for ever wanting to do something, well, normal with my life. Even in seminary, I still have no idea “what I’m going to be when I grow up.” I also find myself wishing God would just tell me. But alas, I have also been given the advice that there is probably not one right answer, and that God has given me grace to make the next step. Thank you for sharing! It is so nice to know I am not alone in these wonderings!

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