Exceeding Your Own Expectations

Inspired by: Capable of Anything” (2015) from the Ben Folds (featuring Y Music) album So There

After a couple of days off to recover from last week’s entries, “Best Imitation of Myself” resumes today.

When we are kids, our parents often tell us that we can be anything that we want, that the future is a blank canvas for us to make our mark upon.

But this isn’t necessarily as true as those idealistic parents make it seem. Studies have shown that the environment that we grow up in has just as much impact on where we eventually end up in life. Sure, you can overcome those biases along the way through lots of effort and hard work, but circumstance is more responsible for your potential success, whatever the measure of that is to you,.

Anecdotally, there is plenty of evidence of people from trying circumstances achieving heights in their life the didn’t seem possible. Former president Barack Obama is a prime recent example. Raised by a single mother, he rose to the highest office in the United States through perseverance, overcoming many obstacles along the way. Bill Clinton is another example, rising out of poverty in Hope, Arkansas to become a Rhodes Scholar and president as well. And that’s just two examples off the top of my head, and there are hundreds if not thousands more of anecdotal stories like this.

But for a lot of people, we would be lucky to exceed the success of the generation before us, and this is becoming increasingly difficult as the wealth gap continues to spread and the American Middle Class continues to lose power and strength to compete. A generation ago, most of our parents were able to find affordable housing for their kids and support themselves with one job and end up doing alright for themselves.

Now, with private pensions nearly completely eradicated, that mentality of “punching the clock” for 30 years hoping for a gold watch and a comfortable retirement at the end have gone by the wayside, replaced by job hopping in order to chase just a little more money or a little more free time or a fancy title.

There have been multiple times in my life where I thought that I could do more and exceed what my parents did. My parents eventually settled into a comfortable middle class life, though it did take a while to get there, and didn’t really happen until my dad got his job with the US Postal Service – a blue collar path to the middle class for millions of families – and my mom started working as a nurse. Prior to that, it was my dad working as a souvenir salesman and Army Reservist, my mom picking up odd jobs around caring for us kids, and a lot of struggles and handouts from the Church (and their parents I’m pretty sure).

Before my dad became a postal carrier in 1994, my parents rarely made more than $30,000 a year. How they managed to raise five kids – my older brother had moved out not long before then – on that money was always a bit of magic to me. Still was, though in hindsight the signs were abundantly clear how they ultimately managed. My parents didn’t buy the house I grew up in; they took over the mortgage from the people that were living there previously and only eventually refinanced when my dad’s career stabilized a bit in the early 1990s.

My parents earned a combined income of $100,000 for the first time the year before I graduated from high school. I know this because when I applied for financial aid the following year, they thought my parents had enough to kick in some money, and I was ineligible for the grants that probably would have been deserved. Even moving to Connecticut a few years later didn’t help in that regard, proving how messed up paying for college can be in this country sometimes.

I initially went to college intent on becoming an accountant. I even did a tour as part of a class at the shiny Salt Lake City offices of Arthur Andersen… a couple of years before shenanigans at Enron brought them crashing to the ground. But I failed an microeconomics class early in my tenure at Weber State – don’t take econ at 8am, kids! – and decided to refocus. Law school became an ambition for a bit, and I chose to become a paralegal specialist in the Army because I thought I would eventually go to law school. That didn’t happen for various reasons either, and I settled into my job as a civil servant with the Army anyway.

I was perfectly resigned to working for the Army, and I eventually reached a position that had long-term potential, even if it was slightly limited. I had a great couple of mentors and had plans to make the Army a career, until I decided that that wasn’t my future. I again turned to accounting, but instead of focusing on the Big 4 path, I wanted to do taxes. Still kind of do. Finished a second bachelor’s degree and tried to find a job – everyone needs an accountant, right? – to get the required experience to eventually become a CPA. Failing at that as well, I took a different path towards being a writer for a bit, and eventually deciding that finance was my path to riches!

More school, another degree, more disappointment in actually finding a job. I really wanted to work in investments, but apparently the only path from my school of choice was consulting or corporate finance. Yuck! So no fancy finance job in Chicago, back to Utah looking for a financial job, trying out a couple, but eventually settling for another job with the government. Along the way, I picked up another degree (that’s four if you’re counting at home) and eventually settled into my role as a credit union examiner, which I do find enjoyment in.

All this to say that I’ll likely be in this job for the foreseeable future. I think it will eventually take me where I want to be, in both location and responsibility. I don’t blame my upbringing for my failures to find my direction in life, or for preventing me from reaching beyond the stable middle class lifestyle my parents eventually reached. I still think I’d be “capable of anything” that I tried to do, though situations change and something like law school seems a little redundant at this time, even if it is “easier” to become a lawyer than a CPA in a lot of places.

Besides, I have four degrees to pay off (or wait another five years for them to be forgiven under PSLF). Perhaps a bit down the road some other avenues will open for me, but in the meantime, I’m just going to try and keep doing the best I can. If my parents can raise five kids on half of what I make, I think I’ll eventually be okay. Even if sometimes it seems like more of a struggle than needed.

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