On this day in black history, a handful of African-Americans accomplished some of their greatest goals. In 1944, Harry S. McAlpin is accredited as the first black man to attend a White House press conference. In 1986, Oprah Winfrey became the first black woman to host a nationally syndicated talk show, and in that same year, figure skater Debi Thomas became the first African- American to win the Women’s Singles of the U.S. National Figure Skating Championship.
Like McAlpin, Winfrey, and Thomas, we all have dreams of being or doing something great one day. We have vivid dreams of graduating and finally making it to the “real world” where we will finally have the liberty and resources to do something we’ve always dreamed of doing. But, is it just me or has this concept of the real world and being able to pursue our dreams been getting pushed further and further away?
I remember thinking that making it to middle school was a big deal and that’s where I’d be 13 and an adult; middle school was the real world. Then I remember entering high school and surely that was the real world. Finally, I graduated high school and enlisted in the army: certainly, I thought, this is the real world. I find myself, now out of the army and back in school, graduating in June and faced once again with this feeling of making it into the real world.
The concept of dream-level achievement has been getting pushed away, but not by some invisible economic hand or racism or elitism, although, those things don’t help. We push our own dreams to the backburner and come up with reasons to excuse ourselves for underachievement. These excuses often come in the form of phrases like “life happened.”
What we mean to articulate when we say “life happened” is that we kept putting things that were urgent to us in front of things that were important to us. We allow our present situation to dictate our actions even when those actions contradict a desired outcome in the future. For example, my car broke down, so instead of putting $5000 in my dream home fund, I bought a new car. This is prioritizing.
There is nothing wrong with prioritizing; it is an important tool in helping us save time. The economic principle of exponential discounting explains that the further away an event is, the less value we place on it. So the reason why we buy new cars instead of saving for our dream home is because from our present perspective, we value the immediate benefit the car gives us over the delayed gratification of purchasing a home, even though a dream home is a much longer lasting and more pivotal investment. Deciding between matters of urgency and matters of importance are real world decisions.
The hardest decisions in life aren’t between good and bad options, they’re between two really good options. To me, that is the real world and, unfortunately, whatever you prioritize in front of your dream today will have lingering side effects in the way ten or fifteen years from now. You can escape the consequences of fixing the urgent thing, but you can’t escape the consequences that fixing the urgent thing will have on your ability to do important things in the future.
I think that’s one of the tricks life plays on us—we always feel as if we have more time. The reality is that even if you live to be 100 years old, that’s only 36,525 days (including 25 counts of Feb. 29th). If you sleep 8 hours per day, then 12,175 of those days you would be asleep. That leaves you with 24,350 days awake. If you’re 18, you’ve already lived 6,574 days, so that leaves you with 17,776 days awake if you live to be 100 years old. According to Genealogy in Time Magazine only 0.0173% of Americans live to be 100 years old. I don’t mean to scare you—I want to give you a sense of mortality—but this is the real world and those are real numbers (no pun intended). Here is a real world decision for you: do you live like you’ll only live once or do you live like you’ll live forever?
So what is your dream? What will you do on this day in black history? How then shall we live? Let’s go make black history.