I spent my childhood surrounded by people who realized the American Dream. My grandparents fled to the United States after World War II with nothing but my 10 year old aunt in tow. A year later my mother was born and six years after that, her father died unexpectedly.
Despite the challenges of single parenthood, the language barrier, and poverty, my aunt and mother rose to the top by working hard and securing scholarships to Ivy League Schools, paving the way for their unprecedented success in their respective fields.
Their friends and neighbors, also immigrants and children of immigrant families, followed the same trajectory. So when it came time for me to plan my future, I never questioned that I was capable of rising to the top.
I have always felt that my possibilities were limitless, not only because I’ve been given the resources and opportunities to do so, but because I have such remarkable examples of success and possibility in my day to day life.
It never occurred to me that the expectations I had become accustomed to were lower, or even non-existent elsewhere, at least in the United States, “the land of opportunity”. But in my years of touring the country for work, I have come across so many people, even entire communities constricted by their own ideas of what’s possible.
If you’ve spent your entire life surrounded by high school dropouts who left to go work at the local factory or help out the family business and live in mobile home communities, how do you know to strive for anything else?
Sure, you read about movie stars, professional athletes, Wall Street tycoons, and people “making it big” – but when you don’t have examples of that in your day to day reality, how do you make it part of your future reality?
For some, going to college and studying to be a doctor or pursuing a career as an artist may seem just as intangible as the fantasy of fairy tales.
Growing up, there was never even a question of whether or not I would be going to college, it was only a matter of where. I never considered an alternative just as I never considered that I couldn’t have everything I wanted if I worked hard enough.
If anything, adulthood has been about managing my expectations. I’m not afraid of my desire because I know my desires can manifest as reality – I’ve seen it first hand.
I think that in some places, people don’t equate desire and dreams with reality because they don’t see it manifested around them. Of course financial resources, location limitations, and other hardships play a role too, but having a living, proximate example prove it’s possible.
We’ve come to define “the glass ceiling” largely as a limitation for women and minorities in a white male dominated corporate America, but I think that “glass ceilings” may also be self imposed by our own expectations – based on personal experiences, culture, family, and life.
For example, if you come from a small town or a culture where women are still thought of as home makers and caretakers, even though they are an integral and large part of the national workforce, if that’s not part of your day to day reality, if you don’t get exposure to different kinds of people with different trajectories, how do you know the alternatives?
Related Reading: Broke with Privilege
Are you limited by your own expectations of what’s possible for you? Have you had to break through your own glass ceiling?