Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Humans of New York and The Death of a Dream

If you ever want to learn more about people, I highly recommend Humans of New York, a project where a photographer takes a picture of various people on the streets of NYC and then asks them an interview question like, “If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?”

The results are sometimes humorous, often profound, occasionally a bit off-color, and always fascinating.

A few days ago, I saw this picture.

This is the caption that went with it: “I had a whole vision. I wasn’t a pro, but I could film from different angles and stuff. I was going to have a whole YouTube channel with different kids doing rap battles. I worked really hard at it, but nobody except my friends ever looked at it. And all the adults in my life told me that I was wasting my time. So one day I got mad at life, and started deleting, deleting, deleting, until it was all gone.”

One commenter wrote, “This is one of the saddest things I’ve seen here.”

Other responded to this comment with disbelief and anger, and I could understand why. Sometimes people on Humans of New York talk about their five-year-old child’s death or about a family situation full of abuse or about the hardships of moving to the US from another country with no friends or family. All of these things are incredibly sad, and have a much deeper impact than a few deleted YouTube videos.

In my head, I know this. But my heart agreed with the original commenter.

You know why? Because in that man’s words, you can hear the death of a dream.

Most of us have been there. It happens when you change your answer for the classic question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” because you’re afraid of others’ reactions. It happens when you get a C in the class you were supposed to ace and decide to give up. It happens the first time you make something in art class and your teacher and your mom tell you it’s beautiful but the other kids tell you it’s ugly . . . and you believe the kids.

It’s fear and failure and the feeling that nothing that you do really matters, that if you had never been born or just disappeared one day, nothing would really change.

I saw that man’s picture, and I thought: someone needs to be his Clarence.

You know why I love George Bailey? Because he is an average guy. He’s given up on some of his dreams and is struggling to chase even the simple ones: making a living and taking care of his family. But he had a profound impact on those around him.

And he didn’t know it until someone showed him.

I’m not going to get into whether or not you should strive to “do what you love” as far as going into it as a career. What I do know is that sometimes dreams have to die. Some endeavors aren’t the best use of time, some goals are better saved for later, and sometimes you have to gently tell a child that she may never be a world-famous ballerina.

But tell her to dance anyway. Tell him to make YouTube videos because he loves it, even if it doesn’t make him rich and famous. Encourage passion and creativity and ambition. Those things won’t necessarily make us famous ballerinas or videographers or astronauts or rock stars. But they make us better people, people with a spark of life in us because people told us that we had value, that we’re creating interesting things, that they can’t wait to see where our talents and passions take us next.

Tell people that who they are matters more than what they do. Encourage them in their accomplishments, but also let them know that you approve of the person they are, not just the grades they get or the awards they earn or the championships they win.

People matter even when the dreams themselves really don't. See, the thing that most “follow your dream” graduation-type speeches miss is that our dreams are filled with really temporary things. From rap battles to a wildly popular blog to a perfectly clean house to the Superbowl winners this time around . . . none of it lasts. None of it really matters.

Sure, seize the day . . . but at some point the sun is going to go down and the day will be over.

What matters then?

If you don't understand this reference, go watch Dead Poet's Society. Right now.

 Believe me when I tell you that the question is not—has never been—whether your life is worth something. It is. The question is always what you are going to live your life for, and whether that will mean anything in the end.

And maybe that’s the advice I would give to a large group of people, even though it’s more of a question than a piece of advice: what are you living for?

1 comment:

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