In 2008, the television game show Jeopardy! hosted a Kids Week Reunion, bringing back contestants who were originally on the show when they were 10, 11, or 12 years old. If you have ever caught Kids Week, you know that every kid knows they're destined to be a brain surgeon, an embedded war journalist, concertmaster of a symphony, the first person to [enter achievement here], a Supreme Court justice, an astronaut, and/or President of the United States.
They have additional aspirations of curing cancer, solving world hunger, and ending political bipartisanship. They're so bright-eyed, and so smart, you root for them to achieve their dreams. Heck, aren't they already halfway there just by being tiny geniuses? So I made it a point to watch the Kids Week Reunion and see what kind of impact each now college-aged young adult had already made on the world.
For the last six years, every now and again, I've thought back to that week of shows, wondering just what happened to those kids, just what went 'wrong.' Now, don't misunderstand me - I didn't think that by 19 or 20 they all would be Steve Jobs-like gurus. But I did imagine exciting D.C. internships, a patent pending on an invention, national math and science awards, a published book...things of that nature.
There is extremely limited information online about that week, so I have to go on memory - and what I remember is that they had somehow morphed into average citizens whose contemporary goals looked nothing like their assured dreams of yesteryear; looked like the goals of the rest of us who never competed on Jeopardy! as a child. Although I can offer no particulars, the disappointing ordinariness of the contestants can be summed up with the fact that one of them was currently attending community college.
The show runners responded accordingly by creating categories and 'answers' that were mildly challenging at best; the contestants, in turn, still struggled. And I remember feeling sad for their lost dreams.
More importantly, though, I wondered how could this be? There would be nothing odd about three or four of the contestants having stumbled along the way to greatness; but the majority of them?
If they were too bright-eyed as kids, too confident of their future, it wasn't their fault. Maybe their parents and teachers, even the community, put too much emphasis on the budding intelligence of upper-elementary students; maybe on that side of the American Dream a successful future was too exciting, seemed too inevitable.
Maybe those kids were told stories about themselves too compelling to resist.
Likely due in part to what is commonly known as The American Dream, there is a general narrative that we expect to follow and it is how we measure the success and meaning of our lives. Diversion from this narrative has long been creative fodder for novels, movies, songwriting, etc., but when faced with it as a stark reality, it is far more depressing (and engenders much less creativity).
Individuals define personal success on their own terms, but success still requires an 'increase' of sorts: getting promoted at work or moving on to a better, more high-paying job; earning not just a high school diploma but a bachelor's degree, and then not just a bachelor's but a master's, and so on; committing to a serious relationship and getting married, and having kids, and having grandkids; there is always the idea of an upward or forward progression, and with its absence comes the feeling of that opposite of success, namely failure.
In a TED talk, Rachel Hills said, "The famous British sociologist Anthony Giddens has argued that we find our identities not in the details of what we do but in our capacity to be able to tell a coherent narrative about who we are. In other words, we like there to be a clear, neat story." Additionally, Giddens believes that the idea of a life narrative arose with the advent of the romance novel.
He's not the only academe probing the importance of story. Professor Dan McAdams of Northwestern University "is most well-known for formulating a life-story theory of human identity, which argues that modern adults provide their lives with a sense of unity and purpose by constructing and internalizing self-defining life stories or 'personal myths.'" I attended a lecture given by McAdams a couple of years ago, and I noticed that the adults being interviewed for his experiments all had 'redemptive' stories to tell; when I asked him about that, he admitted that he and his colleagues were not, at that time, focusing on adults with non-redemptive life stories.
So, what if your life story doesn't fit the model? What kind of message do we receive when the importance of the events in our lives, no matter how incoherent, is rejected because we don't fit the model?
Moreover, if modern adults view their lives through the lens of story, and success is measured by how closely the two match, then what do with do with a story no one wants to read - a life no one is supposed to want to live?
There has definitely been a movement in recent years towards finding the good in the 'bad' - being happy no matter what your circumstances, seeing a divorce or job layoff as an opportunity reboot your life, even the idea of 'failing spectacularly' in order to invite a wealth of experiences and learning opportunities. And while these ideas still seem to suggest that a tidy ending awaits, they are an improvement.
This shift is likely the direct result of postmodernist psychology and sociology, and in fact, the key to solving the mystery of those Jeopardy! tykes may lie in the inevitable movement toward a fully postmodern philosophical era in the West.
Postmodernism already has a long history, but for the sake of this post I'll make some generalizations (and not even to be ironic). By rejecting Enlightenment ideals, chief among them 'reason' and 'truth', postmodernism aims to strike down metanarratives and totalizing theories in order to uphold diversity in everything. In order to achieve this, much of which we consider to be 'normal' is instead waved off as a social construct (and most likely a patriarchal one) and therefore not fundamental, and many of the institutions we assume to be natural - marriage, gender 'norms' - have branched out to embrace multiple new definitions.
Everything is in flux - and as more and more people go off playbook in their education, their careers, their relationships, the landscape will continue to change, even to destabilize. With the modern West subjected to such major cultural and philosophical shifts, we can see how trying to adhere to a narrow idea of the correct life story has become so much more difficult - and that while some will still succeed in doing so, many more will not.
The keen observer will note that somewhat paradoxically, the further we plunge into the postmodern abyss, the more we cling to the stabilizing idea of coherent narrative and ultimate meaning. So either there is a deeper human need for such things, or we're reticent to let go of an old cultural memory. (Don't expect a definitive answer on that one any time soon)
We're faced with a postmodern solution to a postmodern problem. The world is destabilizing - don't fight it, embrace it.
Can we wrangle this idea of 'life story,' and wrestle it to the ground, and make it more closely resemble the true randomness and surprise and uncertainty of real lives lived? Can postmodernism truly take us there? Maddeningly, and unsurprisingly, only time will tell.
An old high school friend of mine wrote an article for the Tiny Buddha website that perfectly expresses the thoughts of someone tagged for greatness in childhood.
He talks about how his life experiences and shifting priorities took him further and further from the destination he had clearly mapped after high school. He mentions the gut-wrenching realization that so many of us have somewhere out on the back forty of our dreams - "Too many careers that [he considered switching to] would require me to have made different choices for the past twenty years to make them work."
It's hard looking around and seeing how far you've strayed from the path, the path that everyone said had your name on it. It's even more difficult realizing that, honestly, you can never go back.
But to survive, we must accept what has happened and that it is our life, that it is not some cookie-cutter story but our very own, very personal journey, and that uniqueness has meaning in and of itself. For John, his life is just "very normal and a little boring. I could try to change it, but it is the perfect life for me."
I'm sure the Jeopardy! kids all had perfectly fine reasons for not rocketing to the moon after high school. Maybe they were even okay with it. Perhaps they discovered sooner than many of us that the stories we're told, and indeed the stories we eventually tell about ourselves, are ultimately abstract and always subject to change; and it was, in fact, the game show itself that relied too heavily on the idea of inevitable success.
Whatever the truth is, I hope those kids have ended up doing something that simply makes them happy.