You can pursue anything

One of the first worries that hit me really hard when I became a professor was the influence I have on my students. Even if I just stand in front of my students, speechless and doing absolutely nothing, it will impact them somehow. They are there to learn not only the content listed in the syllabus but new experiences as well.

When I started, I was scared to say something that would not help them, that would push them towards the wrong direction. So I did what I experienced myself in the past. Something that helped me. I encourage my students to do anything. You know that famous saying?

You can do anything.

That’s what I did. There is no way to be more clear and straight to the point than that. You want to become an astronaut? You can do it! An athlete? Yep. The inventor of the next Facebook? Sure. Why not? I thought that was the right approach to impact my students. If they were to learn more than just the course material, it could well be something that inspired them to thrive and aim high.

One day I watched on YouTube a talk by Rami Ismail, a recognized game developer. The talk mentioned encouraging people to do anything they want. Again it was the famous “you can do it!” being spread in the wild. This time things were different though. Rami said something that resonated with me, something that made me realize how wrong my thoughts were. I can’t recall the exact words, but he commented how shallow pieces of advice like “follow your dreams” can be. Sure you should follow your dreams, but does the person giving such advice know the environment where the receiver lives in? He mentioned that some people just lack the required ground to engage in such endeavor. Following your dream might imply quitting your job, studying something that has a low financial return in the long run, and so on. It directly impacts your life, possibly changing it forever.

Being a Brazilian, I know exactly what that means. Lots of families in my home country need to fight to obtain the basics. My family was able to provide me with a good education, leisure opportunities, books, and trips. We were not rich, but for sure we were privileged. I never took that for granted, but I realized for the first time how “easier” it was for me to follow my dream compared to someone that did not share the same opportunities. That was the moment I thought everything I have been teaching to my students was wrong.

Advice as “follow your dream” is indeed shallow. It means nothing because it is mindless, blind and lacking any concrete steps. Combining it with “you can do anything” could be a recipe for disaster. It’s cliché to say, but everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. What if your advice is the wrong step in such battle?

The day I saw that talk changed my mind. I will never say “you can do anything” anymore because I know how much frustration it could produce. I’ve seen some of my students struggling to understand concepts of programming. It will only inflict pain on them if I repeatedly say “sure, you can do it!” when they struggle so much to do it. Maybe those students, in particular, have a tough time grasping programming concepts. That is pretty much my case when trying to understand how to play the guitar. For me, guitars are simply harder than programming. Can I learn how to play guitar? Sure, I can. Will it take me a lot of time and energy and the outcome will be very simplistic? Yes, it will. Period. Maybe my time will be better invested in something else, something that I also enjoy and I am more likely to thrive.

That’s the reason why I say “you can pursue anything” nowadays. It is way more grounded in reality because pursuing implies going after something. You need a target and a plan to do that. It is also implicit that you might not get there at all. Is it sad? Yes, but is better than chasing an unreachable ghost. I will tell you that you can pursue anything, but the path might be hard and energy-demanding.

I genuinely think that, as someone who can impact the lives of those in my class, I should measure my words. I need to join that individual battle, even if I know nothing about it. I can’t choose the path for that person in that battle, but I can help by giving an educated guess about how to pursue something. What are the challenges and probable steps ahead? And above all, don’t assume that we all have the same resources/passion/energy/time/conditions to pursue things.

You might not be able to do anything you want, but sure as hell you can pursue anything you want.