Goals can be great. Parents, teachers, and mentors have made this case for centuries. And just as goals can be great, so too can challenges which test us and provide an opportunity for growth.
How we express the value of goals and challenges often differs based on our age. I believe that these differences are telling and add insight into how we view our world. They might even pave the way for better intergenerational communication. Two examples follow.
I grew up hearing what is now a very dated expression, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” The saying dates back to 1628 and is a Scottish proverb and nursery rhyme. Its message is that wishing is not the way to get things done.
My father would sometimes utter this saying when he’d hear me express a hope. He was neither harsh nor unsupportive but simply a product of his times. He felt the need to emphasize that we should count on making our own luck.
It makes sense when we understand that my parents operated a small corner grocery store to support our family of six children. Their middle name was “struggle,” and my dad constantly worried about how he would afford college and give his children the opportunity he never had. It is in this context that his message was to take charge and own our path forward.
This saying has passed its expiration date for a variety of reasons. We live in an era where we encourage big dreams. We like to imagine a world of possibilities, not containment of thought or will. Also, the use of “beggar” is highly pejorative with an ugly class distinction that would be replaced today by a word like “underserved.” Our modern-day ethos is to be a society that raises people who are down on their luck.
Consider the same scenario, but now the year is 2015. What might a millennial’s response be? One often-used expression comes from the world of Walt Disney: “If you can dream it, you can do it,” which originated from an employee working on Epcot’s Horizons ride.
“If you can dream it, you can do it,” reinforces that it is only our imagination that limits us. It says that the hardest part of achieving is envisioning. In the 21st century, the idea of possibilities is mesmerizing. It might sound cliché, but we value empowering people to believe that they can do big things.
Almost four centuries separate these two expressions about goal setting. In the Scottish quote, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” we are emphasizing the need to work hard to make something happen. In contrast, Disney’s quote is an affirmation to envision a goal. It offers us reassurance. For a generation that has internalized Martin Luther King’s “I had a dream” speech, Disney’s quote feels more natural. We believe that dreams beget achievement.
Now imagine a different scenario. You have a demanding boss and a high-pressured job with big deadlines. Time is running out. You need to do a sanity check, which leads you to call your 55-year old parent for guidance.
What might you hear? A popular response from a baby boomer would be, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” The expression is a call to action to find your inner reserve to meet the demands. There is no coddling — just an exhortation to rise up and be strong.
The origin of this expression is said to come from football coaches. Some sources say Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne used the expression, and others cite lesser-known John Thomas from Texas who coached two decades later. Either way, the physicality of the game of football fits well with the tone of this expression.
Now imagine calling a millennial friend for support and guidance. What might you hear? One expression that has become mainstream is, “Conquer your inner bitch.” The saying comes from Joe Rogan, a colorful comedian and podcast host.
As has been explained to me, “Conquer your inner bitch,” addresses the little voice inside that can undermine us and drain our confidence. It’s a voice that accepts excuses. In this instance, if the job has become too demanding, we conquer our inner bitch by overcoming negative thoughts. We squash our self-doubt and lead with positive self-talk.
While both expressions seek the same endpoint — to overcome a hurdle — their message is slightly different. In the first expression, we are to get tough and physically engage with our world. In contrast, “Conquer your inner bitch,” asks us to look inward and eliminate any negative self-perceptions. Physical versus mental, externally focused versus internally focused, ordinary versus guttural language.
Our use of idioms says a lot more about us than the mere expression itself. Generations are constructed differently based on the times and the values we were taught. At a time when people are seeking to build intergenerational bridges, a careful look at our expressions might be a useful tool to help us gain understanding.
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