Why the idea of ‘destiny’ will ruin your 20s

February 07, 2017
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There’s a great deal of pressure on us during the years following high school. It’s supposed to be the decade in which you get your shit together and set up the rest of your life. But has society programmed us to struggle before we’ve even begun?

From the time we are children, we are fed notions about ‘destiny’, even if it’s rarely called that. At the same time, we are told that the talented rise to the top. But life is not a movie; the search for meaning and success rarely turns out the way we think it will.

Here’s how the myths of destiny and talent conspire to keep us directionless.

Meant to be

Movies, television and any other form of fiction (and even most non-fiction) will inevitably convince you that life has a plan for you. It’s not the writer’s fault, really. A story that accurately resembled real life would be rage-inducingly dull. Nobody wants to read about the long stretches of nothing that occur between major events – that’s why JK Rowling’s third novel was called Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and not Harry Potter and the Mostly Quiet Year of Achieving Average Grades and Discovering Masturbation.

Life is strange, confusing and scary. Stories are our way of trying to make sense of it. But stories can’t capture life in its totality, so we give them structure and focus to make them more digestible. There’s nothing wrong with that. The trouble starts when we confuse the artifice of plot for the reality of life. Authors have a plan for their characters. Life has no such plans for us.

It might seem like I’m stating the obvious, but you’d be surprised at the number of grown adults you meet who believe that the universe is just waiting to dump a pile of outrageous success over their heads. Just consider that 51% of 18- to 25-year-olds consider “becoming famous” a legitimate career path, despite the chances of actually doing so being microscopically small. And yet, only a handful ever enter the entertainment industry.

The reality of ‘making it big’ might sound discouraging, but there’s another reason young people have trouble following their dreams: our obsession with talent.

The X factor

When we’re kids, we’re told that we can be anything we want to be. Then, contrarily, we’re conditioned to worship a nebulous trait called “talent”. This supposedly inherent characteristic is celebrated over and over in our society – in movies, the boardroom, even in sports commentary. It paints a picture of success as a genetically produced, pre-determined outcome; something you either have or you don’t. So, kids, you can be anything you want to be – unless you don’t have talent, in which case you’re fucked.

The problem with talent is that it’s a poor precursor for success. Aptitude can only take you so far – and usually, not that far. Research has shown that a better indicator of success is not worrying about talent. One study found that students who placed greater emphasis on ability over hard work were more likely to be anxious and self-conscious. They were also less likely to study after receiving a bad grade, convinced that it was their lack of innate intelligence that had failed them, and not poor study habits. Their faith in the role of talent had robbed them of confidence. 

Am I saying that innate talent doesn’t exist? Of course not. But the world is filled with talented people who will never achieve shit. Success is for those who try – and keep trying.

The fault is not in our stars

Destiny and talent are paralytics. Both concepts take life out of our hands, make us believe that if it’s “meant to be”, it will happen, and if it doesn’t, it’s because we’re not talented or deserving enough.

You are not destined for greatness, but neither are you constrained by some unquantifiable capacity for it. You should neither expect – nor accept – a pre-determined lot in life. Your life is up to you. Hard work, perseverance and openness to failure will make the difference.

John Green can go fuck himself.

Joel Svensson

Business major, journalism minor and freelance writer, Joel pretends to be clever at La Trobe University.