Plurality – Stop trying to be just one thing

Several years ago I led a research study exploring the thoughts and perceptions of middle- and high-school students as they relate to attending college. This is a pretty fascinating topic because most of the US population doesn’t get a college degree, yet almost every middle school student believes they will go to college. I think the actual number was 98%.

It turns out that these students have remarkably little knowledge or planning to actually attend college or any form of higher education.

  • Do they have a preferred school? Oh yeah!
  • Are the grades good enough to get into that school? Don’t know
  • Do they have a backup plan if they don’t make that school? Ummm, no
  • Have they thought about how much money it will take? Nope

Still, this lack of knowledge did almost nothing to dissuade them from believing (not hoping, but believing) that they will attend college.

They had no idea how it was going to happen, but dammit, they were committed.

We labeled this phenomenon “Plurality of Thought.” Some people challenged our labeling and asserted that this was cognitive dissonance. However, cognitive dissonance refers to the negative feeling born out of conflicting beliefs.

The thing with plural thoughts is that even though they should conflict, in the mind of the holder, they don’t. They very peacefully coexist.

And you know what? Sometimes that’s okay. In fact, there may even be a lesson there.

The older I get, the more I believe that an authentic life requires the acceptance of this plurality.

A group of us were having dinner recently and a friend was talking about her family and the death of her dad. Now, to set the stage this friend is a successful professional and works for a well-known company in a high-level position.

I knew that her dad had passed away, and like most adult children, she was involved in an increasing level of his care before he passed. What I didn’t know was that her dad suffered from alcoholism and even spent time in prison while she was growing up.

This gets me because based on those facts, her assumed path would not be good. Maybe we would assume drugs, maybe we’d assume she’d end up in prison herself. Certainly, we wouldn’t expect her to grow up to become a successful woman with a great career and a great family.

She made a comment that really stuck with me. She said her dad being in prison doesn’t define her, but it is a part of her.

I couldn’t help but be taken back by the grace of her comment because I think a lot of people (myself included) spend too much effort trying to be a single thing. And instead of accepting the plurality, we become hindered by the dissonance.

Since sharing the experience of losing my son, several men have reached out to me to share their experiences. Some had a child in active addiction. Many were in bad relationships or dealing with a divorce.

All these men are successful and all of them have some pretty fucked up stuff in their lives. So, what is their reality? Are they successful professionals? Or people dealing with some really heavy stuff? I think the answer is both.

I think there is authenticity in acknowledging both. Pretending the shitty stuff isn’t there…well, I don’t know what that is even called. Hypocrisy? Bullshit? I don’t know.

Focusing on it though, letting it define your total being, that seems like a one way ticket to failure.

I think my friend said it best. It is part of you, but it doesn’t define you.