I hate when people ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It implies that a person should pick a profession, when in reality the profession often picks the person. I wish someone would ask what they were good at, what they enjoyed. Invite them to open their mind. To invent their future rather than fit into cookie cutter career paths whose worthiness is based on projected income. From early on we limit the scope of what’s possible. For some that scope is inherently narrow.
Recently I talked to a former classmate. A young Black, college-educated male quickly rising through the ranks of the advertising industry, he expressed a confused awe at his own achievements. “I’m not supposed to be here,” he said. Growing up, he thought you had to be superhuman to be successful, like the Jay Zs and Lebron Jameses of the world. Or make money in the streets. Or struggle. There was no middle ground. A computer his church gave him when he was young was the turning point. Before that, he said, he didn’t have anything to inspire him. He still has trouble understanding his middle class success, or even accepting it as the success that it is.
In, “Black Men And Their Infatuation With The Entertainment Business”, the author wags a finger at Black men for being obsessed with the entertainment industry and all the fame and glitter that comes with it. “Black men must become more aware of their options,” it says in bold lettering. “There are other ways to achieve the money, cars, and the women.”
What seems like an infatuation with the entertainment industry may be boxed in ambition. Men (and women… the fellas don’t have a monopoly on superficiality) see Jay Z as the better of two roads to travel. There’s mind-blowing success, and there’s every-failure-one else. No middle ground.
As awesome as it is to have stories of Black men and women achieving unfathomable wealth, parroting lyrics about art collections and name brands we couldn’t sound out last year only envelopes us in a fantasy. The cold, hard fact of capitalism is that not all of us will join Jay at the mountaintop. And that’s okay. You might only get one good (wo)man, an okay car, and a decent savings account out of this life. And that’s okay.
Between billionaire and pauper there exists a middle ground that is rarely celebrated. As much as America claims to love its middle class, this country was built on the promise that you could escape it. Or bypass it altogether. We always want more; we always want the most. It’s a sentiment that is strengthened in communities where walking, talking reality checks are absent. Where doing good work, taking care of your family and enjoying life isn’t celebrated as the ultimate success.
Luxury rap is nice for the summer. But, as a culture we have to embrace other measures of success beyond money, cars, and sexual partners. At some point 99 percent of the people chasing dreams of fame and fortune will grow up and realize that there’s not enough money being printed for everyone to be a millionaire. That fame is often limited to 15 seconds. What of their ambition then? Will they invent a world of possibility, or will they settle for the only other option?
C. Cleveland covers professional development topics and entrepreneurial rebels who blaze their own career paths. She explores these stories and more on The Red Read, Twitter (@CleveOutLoud) and Facebook (/MyReadIsRed).