Pipe Dreams

Richard Quinn

AS A TEENAGER, I wanted to be an architect. I took six years of mechanical drawing during junior and senior high school, and I was good at it, earning nearly all As.

At another time, in my 30s, I thought about becoming a lawyer. People told me I’d make a good one. A lawyer’s opinion seemed to carry more weight, even when the subject was unrelated to legal matters.

I also wanted to play a musical instrument. All my children played more than one in school, and a couple kept at it through college and after.

I often thought it would be cool to speak another language. I was always amazed that, throughout Europe, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t speak English. Russia is the exception.

The thing is, I accomplished none of these goals, although in some parts of the U.S., I’ve been told speaking New Jersey is a foreign language. Same to you, Tex.

When I was in high school, I was advised to take general courses because I wasn’t going to college. That meant basic math, bookkeeping, typing, English, history and shop. You should see the copper ashtray and wooden salad bowl I made. Years later, I had to take remedial courses to begin college.

Not pursuing architecture may have been a good thing. My son started college in architecture and finished as a civil engineer—too much math for me.

Being a lawyer was a pipe dream. I doubt I had the necessary patience. Besides, after spending nine years of nights and weekends getting a bachelor’s degree, I was burned out. More years of night law school would have been too much for me, although I know at least two colleagues who managed it.

As far as playing an instrument goes, I never actually tried beyond a plastic trumpet at age 10—but I still think it would be cool. A couple of years ago, I met a woman in Starbucks who offered to teach me to play the bagpipes. I love to hear Amazing Grace played on the pipes. You need a lot of hot air for that instrument and, of course, that’s not me.

I toyed with going to Berlitz to learn a language. I even tried a language app on my iPad, but to no avail.

Here I am, going on 80, and I’ve achieved none of my youthful dreams. My quest after high school was to look for a job, any job, just as my father had done.

Whose fault is this? My parents, who didn’t guide or encourage me, or my school counselors? Not my wife. She encouraged me to learn a language and said she would support me going—or at least trying—law school.

No, I’m responsible. I made all the decisions and excuses. I changed direction. I could have overcome every obstacle. I could have found a way, as many others do. But I didn’t.

By most measures, I did better than okay. I’m fortunate, but it could have turned out differently.

These days, many people claim to be victims. They’re told that opportunities are few, and that the system is rigged. Many Americans see only a bleak financial future, yet seem to do little about it.

Times are tough, people tell me. Really? Get out your history book and go back a century or more. Life in America—and the world—has been much more challenging. There have been multiple wars, financial collapses, depressions, high inflation and more.

Many of the great achievers who changed the world had to overcome physical or other obstacles. Many recovered from early failures, and most started with next to nothing.

Don’t let your dreams slip by, and don’t let anyone offer you excuses or tell you what you can’t do. Reject being a victim, and don’t blame the system. Don’t get derailed envying others, many of whom worked hard and overcame obstacles. More than anything else, it’s the decisions we make—or don’t make—that determine our life’s trajectory and financial security. And that’s a fact.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow him on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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