What Happens When “When”s Become “If”s


It starts in elementary school. You talk about different careers in your class, and your teacher tells you to write about what you want to be when you grow up. It’s simple. We only have about a dozen things to choose from when we’re that age. We’ve only been exposed to parents, teachers, firefighters, police officers, doctors, etc. There’s always that one kid that loves animals so she wants to raise horses. There’s one kid who wants to play soccer or basketball or baseball because he plays it on the playground. I was the kid who wanted to be a teacher, because I loved school and loved my teachers to no end. It was that simple.

When you get to middle school, the world gets a little bigger. There are more paths to choose from. The girl who wanted to raise horses now wants to be a cardiovascular surgeon. The boy who wanted to play soccer now wants to be in a rock band. And so it goes. They say adolescence is paired with a sense of immortality and invincibility, and this is where we all said, “We want to be XYZ, and we will be XYZ.” The student body president said, “When I’m President of the United States, I will lower the voting age.” The valedictorian said, “When I become a scientist, I will find a cure for breast cancer.” I said, “When I become a filmmaker, I will work in Hollywood.” The choices began to multiply but we were not fazed. We were so far away from the so-called real world that “whens” and “wills” thrived in our vocabularies as if we had been fed them everyday since we were young.

But at some point, depending on your awareness and maturity, the “whens” and “wills” began to taper off. In high school, you get discouraged by tests and college admissions, frightened by tough teachers and the realization that you may not be the top of your class or your sport any longer. Competition becomes fierce amongst you, your classmates, and the rest of your generation. Financial realities reveal themselves, their ugly existence haunting you while you ask yourself why you never saw them before. I would hear classmates say, “If I don’t get enough financial aid, I can’t go to Stanford,” or “If I don’t pass this class, I’ll never get into college.” And then it became, “If I go to community college, hopefully I can transfer out in less than 2 years, and then maybe I can go to UC San Diego or UC Santa Barbara and try to major in English or History.” We didn’t grow up talking like that. That tentative language was acquired. It appeared somewhere between “I want to” and “But…” The “buts” are what ruined us.

But you can’t afford it. But you don’t have the grades. But you are one in a hundred thousand applicants. But there are so many athletes that run faster than you, so many students that are smarter than you, so many filmmakers that edit better than you.

This isn’t about when you reach your goal. This is about IF you reach your goal.

There is plenty of literature out there on how our generation was spoiled by the notion that “we could do anything,” how it set us up to run into walls as we exit adolescence. They say we have a false sense of entitlement, a delusional belief that we can do more than we are capable of. They say we are doomed to fail as long as we cling to our participation trophies and our 3rd grade essays that claimed, “I will be successful.”

I think otherwise. Our generation is not delusional — we are very well aware of the obstacles that lie before us. We know that some dreams are easier to achieve than others. But our downfall will not be from believing in ourselves and striving towards our goals; it will be from second-guessing ourselves and slipping “ifs” and “buts” into every statement that describes who we are and what we want to be. 

So many people go from “I will be this” to “I want to be this, but it depends on if I can do this and that.” Although it’s a safe, acceptable way to speak (and usually regarded as reasonable), it’s that sort of mindset that sets you up to fail. Why? Because you’re making failure a viable option. It may sound cliché, but it’s true. How inspired would you be if you walked into a 1st grade class and heard, “Well, I want to be a lawyer, but if I can’t pass my LSAT, I guess I’ll go into sales.”

I’m not saying that every kid who wanted to be Derek Jeter is going to play in the big leagues. Obviously, our dreams have to change sometimes, and that’s okay. What’s not ok is compromising and telling yourself that your goals may not happen. Like I said, dreams change. Just because you don’t achieve what you said you were going to in 1st grade doesn’t mean you’ve failed. But once you have your heart set on something, go out and do it. By any means necessary. In this crazy dog-eat-dog world, the ones that never say “if” or “but” are the ones that make it through the fire.

And when you do succeed, you will be glad that you never said “if.”

featured image – Thomas Hawk