By Sarah Colson
Surfing Facebook the other day, I found this:
Me at 18: “I’m going to change the world.”
Me at 20: “Changing even just one person would be enough.”
Me at 25: “I hope I can buy bread.”
I laughed and kept scrolling. But as I think about it now, it bothers me that something happens to us between knowing we can change the world and hoping not to starve.
During my childhood, there were a few things I wanted to be: a professional basketball player (specifically, I wanted to be Candace Parker), a grocery clerk, a missionary, a dog trainer, a firewoman, and an astronaut, to name a few. All of these things I knew I could be and all of these things I knew would change the world somehow. Up until about age 13 I believed I could be Candace Parker, even though I was about five-foot-nothing. It took until my senior year of high school to realize I actually had to like math and science to be an astronaut. It never even entered my mind that I might not exactly change the whole world until midway through college, just a few short years ago.
As I grew up, my parents always encouraged me to do multiple extracurricular activities. My older brother and I were to play a spring and a winter sport up until high school. I specifically remember a moment at age 13 when I was forced to give up one of my activities; at that time, I was trying to juggle basketball, dance, softball, horseback riding and piano lessons. I dropped piano. Now, 10 years later, my 13-year-old sister, Abby, is facing a similar decision: she must decide whether to take dance to a more competitive level and continue with her taekwondo lessons, or drop dance and pick up Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Abby, like me, is a young woman full of opportunities. She has wanted to be a missionary, a zookeeper and an ornithologist (a bird-studier, more or less) and has finally settled on being a geneticist. She aims high. She earnestly believes she will change the world. I like it.
Last week I had the privilege of speaking to a group of fourth graders at Towne Acres Elementary School about “what it’s like being a journalist.” After me, they heard from a surgeon, and before me, they heard from several other professionals about what it’s like to do exciting things like save lives, help people and, in short, change the world. Walking into the little auditorium I could just feel the room buzzing with energy (or maybe it was just the sugar from the juice boxes) that comes with questions like, “have you ever written a story about a crime scene?” and “have you ever met anyone famous?” I spent the half hour explaining to these little ones that despite any and all odds they might face in their lives, they really can become whatever they’d like to be. And I really believe it. But there is a catch.
My parents sacrificed a lot to create a family where we three kids believed we could become anything we wanted to be. My dad would say, “Well, we didn’t do anything special. We just kept telling you that you really could be whatever you wanted to be.” But as I watch them raise my younger sister now, I can see it took a lot more than that. They sacrificed money on frivolous things like uniforms and pompoms and unappreciated piano lessons. My dad once raised enough money (about $6,000) to make sure my brother’s Little League team could wear jerseys exactly the same as the Cardinals’. But more than money — my parents sacrificed their time. There’s not a single athletic event I don’t remember my mom showing up. In fact, to this day she still cheers me on at races, even when she only sees me at the finish line.
I truly believe these kids can become anything they want to be—despite race, background, gender — but only if they’re told that they can, and only if they have someone there proving they’re worth the time.
Not all of us can afford to take hours and hours out of our schedules to raise money for Little League jerseys that are only worn one spring. My brother may not remember the fancy jerseys (he spent about 10 minutes arguing with my dad that they were actually Red Sox jerseys), but he does remember Dad showing up for extra practices and taking time outside of the sport to teach him his swing. We don’t all have to sacrifice everything, but make one small sacrifice, like telling a 13-year-old you know that she can do anything, and that child will grow up believing she can.
I’m often poked fun at because of my “go get ‘em” attitude and because of my belief that I might actually change the world in some small way some day. And maybe that’s fair. After all, I’m a small girl in East Tennessee with no money and not a whole lot of experience either. But what I can do is keep telling my sister that it doesn’t matter which sport she chooses, or if she’s not that great at math; if she wants to get better, she will. If she wants to be a geneticist or ornithologist or any other kind of “ist,” that’s what she’ll become—with a lot of hard work and even more encouragement, of course.
Plenty of millennials like me are looked down on because we earnestly (and yes, sometimes naively) believe we can make a difference. But I wonder what the world would look like if a bunch of people believed they could make a difference but never did? Isn’t that better than never trying to make a difference at all? What happens to us between thinking we can change the world at 18 and then settling for buying bread at 25? Maybe we realize how big the world actually is, or maybe people stop telling us we can be anything we want to be. While I don’t believe “anything is possible if you just believe,” I do know that true action starts with believing you can do something. Without that belief, we’re all just sitting around eating bread.