Every day, thousands of people are born into the world. An entire universe and lifetime lay ahead of them, filled with choices and opportunities. They briefly have a chance to be whatever they choose, but this shining wisp of freedom does not last. The stains of society set in swiftly. Before such novices take their first steps, their life’s goals are set out for them by our culture. They will become accepted by adults who raise them on the fantasy that life is about how much they can get for themselves.
Well, we are those people. We will be taught to enter the corporate world of profit, just like the previous generation who traded its dreams long ago. We will learn that life is nothing more than money, that success is a matter of material possessions, and who could blame us? With all the advertisements and false answers instilled by the media into a generation raised on television, how can we know anything else?
Adolescents today are thrown onto a stairway pointing at what we are told is success. Having no choice but to advance, we trudge forward without hope of stopping. Who is there to tell us that it is not the only way, that failing is perfectly acceptable? Who is there to ask us if we ever wanted what is there in the first place? Chances are most of us don’t. In our country today, we are taught that success is a straight staircase to material accomplishment.
What happened to being ruled by our hearts and not by money? How long has it been since following one’s dream was a noble course, when we did not scorn those who forged their own paths? We cannot hope to find joy in these dreams when we live in a country that screams, “Money will make you happy!” The runaway train of our society blazes out of control into the darkness ahead while we watch and do nothing. It must be stopped, because we are setting ourselves up for an enormous crash. We must let go of our motives for personal gain if we have any chance of saving each other. We have to discover why life is about more than money.
It all begins with one question that everyone asks when they come to a certain point in life: What is success? The answer is quite difficult and truly different for everybody. The problem is that people have stopped asking it because we don’t even have a chance to figure it out for ourselves. The wrong answers are glaring at us everywhere we look, everywhere we go. Our high schools tell us it’s all about getting into a top college, families will tell us it’s about the job with the greatest financial support. Do we wonder if the best colleges are right for us, or if the greatest job will make us happy? Doing well requires sacrifices, but not forsaking passions.
Families and schools may have the ability to tell us what the answers are. They don’t, however, come close to the power of advertising, the source that fights the most for our attention, and sadly succeeds. Unlike our schools or families, however, they have no concern for how they distort our views.
It is hard to know the truth when a world of lies is presented to us every day. We are shown figures who are supposed to be real people, living perfect lives that are up for sale to us. They seem to have everything - the Ferrari, the Coach handbag, the vacation in paradise - and they appear to be happy. Language barriers are not a problem when “Everyone speaks gold.” If we buy this shaving gel the girls will come flocking; if we wear this mascara we’ll be irresistible. Well, every kiss does not begin with Kay, and girls don’t shop for boyfriends based on their hygiene products. It is easy to see that today’s commercials are nothing more than empty promises, promises that we fall for and throw away our money on. But why do we believe such blatant lies?
Quite simply, because we want to. We desire faultless lives, we want happiness, and we want to be successful. There in front of us the definition of success is laid out: have the most and you’ve won the game. Achievements are what you can hold in your hands, only things you can touch, things you can buy. We see these perfect, happy, well-off people on television and cannot hide our envy. But they are just actors in a commercial, and they too are working for their paychecks. Such Stepford people do not exist anywhere in the world, yet we spend our entire lives trying to emulate them.
Some can see past the rose-tinted glass of advertising, others cannot. Yet all are faced with the same problem: what course should they take to reach their goals? Ah, that is where society steps in once again. Its staircase mentality is embedded into the minds of every young person in America. Do this to get to that; complete this to accomplish that; finish this to be that. Life is a series of steps. Go to this school, take this job, get this promotion, throw this party, and you’re guaranteed to make it. The road to success is straight and in one direction, so we’re told. But once again, this is neither the answer nor the truth.
Some may say that our society functions on a progression with steps, and to do well we must follow them. But whoever said the rules of society had any merit, meaning or point? Success is different for each individual, and one social model can’t possibly fit everyone. Most will find that life has no pattern or system; it is actually more like a random road. This path winds, changes direction and backtracks. Sometimes you will lose your way; sometimes you must travel down other sidetracks, but take your merry time because you control your own journey, and the journey is everything.
Everyone cannot be forced to take the stairs. If we can abandon this vision of a stairway to success, we will find life much easier, and we will find it truer to who we are. We need to know it’s okay to be who we are and to follow what our hearts love, no matter the financial consequences or its traditional acceptance. We should never have to settle for what society wants us to be, for our lives are not up for sale, no matter how hard businesses try to buy them. Fulfillment comes from being rich in the things that money can’t buy. Our generation has a hope if we can define our own success and choose our own way to get to it. We shouldn’t have to live in a world where what we are supposed to have and be is told to us before our lives are even given an opportunity to start. So please, give us a chance. Give us an opportunity to live.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.