My father gave me two pieces of advice when I was very young. First, never dig a pile of dirt from the middle. (Shovel at the bottom, so the dirt falls into the blade.) And second, always live in a ranch-style home. (So you can still get around all of it when you’re old).
I was not raised by my father. My parents divorced when I was an infant, leaving my mother to raise four sons by herself. That’s why his advice didn’t involve anything time-consuming or with multiple steps, like how to shave or barbecue ribs. What I gleaned from him I had to get during random and sparse weekend visits, and after a certain age, even those became largely unnecessary. But we had the relationship we had; it was not an unpleasant one, and twice he had a useful piece of advice to offer.
In short, I’m not the product of fatherly advice. I don’t have a list of aphorisms handed down, father to son, that has guided me through life, save for the parts where dirt and real estate were involved. Who I am comes largely from trial and error, being thrown in various fires or deep ends, and matriarchal admonishments, in that order. That reads harsher than intended, but I turned out awesome, so I’m not complaining and neither should you.
Advice is a tricky thing, and the most perilous version of it is the parent-to-child remix. Most of it is well-meaning and the best of it comes from hard-won experience. Parental advice is generally perceived to be a series of life hacks aimed at keeping loved ones from the pitfalls of ignorance and stubbornness, and I would argue that most of it holds true.
But if there’s one piece of advice that I could convince parents to stop giving, it would be the notion of the backup plan. The most popular version of this idea is, “Have a plan you can fall back on.” On the surface it not only sounds like good advice, but harmless advice. And I suppose there are children who might benefit from hearing it if it weren’t so obvious. But my advice on this subject remains: If you are telling your children to have a backup plan, I implore you to stop.
As a Black person, this piece of advice is a Rosetta stone of relativity. I can talk to any Black person anywhere in the country, regardless of their background or politics, and connect over this experience if nothing else. If I talk to a drug dealer or a politician or a Black conservative, we will all have the same story here. We may have applied it differently, but we have all received this advice.
In my house the variant was, “Don’t quit your day job.” It didn’t matter if I hated my day job, or if the day job was loaded with racists, or if the day job kept me from considering other options of what to do with my life. Black people from a generation or two ago don’t generally subscribe to the idea of liking what you do for a living. A Black person over the age of 60 likely thinks you should be glad to have a job, regardless of what it is, and for obvious reasons. They experienced a world in which Black people could only get certain work.
My mother is in her eighties and she still thinks that writing is a hobby. I’ve written three books. I get paid to do workshops at colleges to teach writing. I make sure she gets all of the newspaper clippings about my work, but it doesn’t matter. Something about creative professions is soft to her, is unsound at its base. I won an Emmy last year and while she was very proud, an Emmy doesn’t come with a check, so I caught a “don’t quit your day job” on that one, too. It would never occur to her that writing is my day job; only that if I ever said it was, I was setting myself up for disappointment.
Children should be encouraged to chase their dream until there is no road, and when there is no road they must search for a path, and if there is no path they must clear a path. At the same time, they must be taught to recognize a cliff, and when they have reached it.
Let me be clear, I have nothing against preparation. I agree that if something doesn’t work out, you should move on to the next thing you can do, and yes, that may be something you don’t want to do. But Black families kill thousands of dreams every day telling generation after generation not to chase a dream, or that certain fields aren’t things Black people can succeed in, or simply to abandon work that you want to do and might be great at. I say to those parents that it’s 2021. And while America seeks to root us out of its way of life every day, it’s okay to support a child’s dream without the qualifier of a backup plan.
The current debate about frontline workers not returning to jobs they don’t actually want or find rewarding is entirely related to this. Finally, expecting a career to contribute to your quality of life beyond a paycheck is becoming nonnegotiable for millions of people. Turns out that when people have to make decisions about jobs they no longer want, a backup plan materializes, whether they planned it or not. That’s pretty much how living works.
Part of why backup plan advice is suspect is because most parents are not honest when they give it. They don’t mean, “Do what you want, but make sure you’ve set aside some time for a second option.” What they mean — and usually support with actual resources — is, “Do all of the work to build a career that is safe, and do your dreams on the side.” The problem with that math should be obvious here. The time, energy, and money spent developing a backup plan are resources not dedicated to the thing the child actually wants to do, and subsequently they are unlikely to realize their dream. The backup plan isn’t a backup plan at all. It is the path a parent will pay for.
And I get it. It’s a course borne of survival conditioning, and years of living in America have proven why that’s not a paranoid delusion. The Black need to survive in America is real. That said, it’s time to reassess what surviving means.
To be totally honest, some of you may not be the best gauge of what your child is capable of without some evidence on the table. Most people of certain generations don’t understand the things that make the world spin these days any better than a child does. In some ways, they understand it even less. It’s why they’re always calling their grandchildren for advice about what their phones aren’t doing. Advice from people of a different generation is always something you should consider. As someone who has spent years building cultural spaces, I’m all about elders and mentorship. But I have also frequently found myself across the table from elders who were raised to think that having seats at tables was the goal, or for whom a bowed head incrementalism is the best way to political and personal success. Certainly we dream differently now. Maybe, in a world in which a new technological miracle is created every day, our children can be allowed space to consider work or living in ways that build them up first. Maybe it is time to aim them at doing more than surviving.
By his own admission, trumpet master Wynton Marsalis was not predestined to become one of the most notable musicians in the world. He picked up playing music as a teenager and came from a musical family, but a career in music was not a given. When Marsalis was leaving high school and it was time for him to decide on a career path, many people around him told him not to go into music. The work was too hard, the pay was nothing, there was no famous Marsalis legacy yet. He went to his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., and asked him what he should do. His father said, “Don’t have nothing to fall back on.” So Marsalis threw himself into music and in short order changed the jazz world, opening the door for a generation of “young lions.”
Mind you, if your child can do anything as well as Wynton Marsalis played trumpet at that age, you can probably get away with giving “no backup plan” advice and still sleep at night. But even if you can’t, there exists a sea of possible greatness that’s short of a Marsalis level of talent and ambition. And it has never been easier to learn the limits of your potential than it is right now.
The flip side to no backup plan is that there is a time to kill dreams, a point in life in which you realize the thing that you want to happen is not going to happen. Knowing when to pull the plug is something we have to learn as well. But until then, children should be encouraged to chase their dream until there is no road, and when there is no road they must search for a path, and if there is no path they must clear a path. At the same time, they must be taught to recognize a cliff, and when they have reached it.
Parents, I know that you mean well, that you want your child to do better, to achieve more, to be better. I am not asking that you change that. In fact, you can’t. But you can change the vision board to include happiness, to come from a place that isn’t only survival-driven. You can take a cue from what your child thinks will make them happy, and put as much effort into that as you want them to put into a backup plan. You can raise them more in line with who they are and not what they are.