Actually, You Can’t Be Anything You Want (And it’s a Good Thing, Too)

Excerpts from William T. Cavanaugh’s chapter in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015)

The following quotation is attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “You can be anything you want to be, do anything you set out to accomplish, if you hold to that desire with singleness of purpose.” This message is constantly reinforced in education and entertainment directed at children. Disney movies often rely on a formula in which an anthropomorphized panda or plane or rat or monster or car believes in himself, overcomes his limitations and the restrictions of society, and fulfills his wildest dreams. The protagonist along the way learns contempt for the unimaginative drudgery to which the majority of society remains captive; self-fulfillment is privileged over the common good. A disparagement of routine labor is accompanied by a disregard for hard work and the development of good habits. As Luke Epplin’s recent article in The Atlantic puts it, “Turbo and Dusty”—the protagonists of the animated movies Turbo and Planes—“don’t need to hone their craft for years in minor-league circuits like their racing peers presumably did. It’s enough for them simply to show up with no experience at the world’s most competitive races, dig deep within themselves, and out-believe their opponents.” Customs, community, rules, habituation—all are ignored in favor of spontaneous gratification of one’s wants.

What happens when young adults who have been marinated in this type of cultural messaging come to the range of questions surrounding vocation? They are often told not only that they can and must choose their life, but that they must maximize that choice and choose their best life. Furthermore, the choice of their best life consists of knowing what they want and then seeking to attain what they want. It is no wonder that many young adults find this demand paralyzing. How many times has panic flashed across the face of a student confronted by the seemingly innocent question, “What would you like to do when you graduate?” Many, no doubt, suspect that what Abraham Lincoln and Dusty the animated airplane say is simply not true: you actually can’t be whatever you want to be. But even if they accept some realistic limitations on the fulfillments of their wants, the deeper problem remains: do they even know what they want? How does anyone really know what kind of life one wants? Can people choose what sorts of lives are right for them before they have lived enough to know? The whole exercise of choosing one’s vocation becomes fraught with anxiety

Questions to Consider:

  • What are the realistic limitations on the fulfillment of your wants? How do these limitations differ from what your parents and your grandparents faced when they were your age? Should you try to overcome these limitations or work within them? Why?
  • How has Hope College prepared you to choose what sort of life is good for you before you have lived enough to know? Or do you feel woefully unprepared to make choices about your vocation?


Psychologists use the term “maximizer” to describe the person who tries to live up to the ideal of the sovereign chooser by making the optimal choice from the range of options. The ideal is a corollary of the notion that having more choices is always better; as choice expands, some even better options may come into play, thus increasing the range of candidates for the “best” possible choice. Maximizers do not stop looking for a sweater or a job when they find one they like; there is always one more store or one more website they need to check to make sure that they don’t settle for second best. The term “satisficer” is used to describe those who stop looking when they find what they were seeking. Maximizers are much less happy with life than satisficers, not because they make worse choices—after all, the maximizer might well end up getting a better deal on the same sweater—but because they can never be satisfied with the choices they make. Maximizers fantasize about living someone else’s life, because the best life is always out of reach.

Questions to Consider:

  • Do you see yourself as a “maximizer” or a “satisficer”?
  • Presumably, it’s possible to be both a “maximizer” and a “satisficer”—you might have some areas in your life where you do not stop looking for the best choice, while in other areas you stop looking when you find what you are seeking. In what aspects of your life are you a “maximizer”? a “satisficer”?
  • If you can be both, can you choose when to be a “maximizer” and when to be a “satisficer”? If so, when would you want to be a “maximizer”? a “satisficer”?