Like a lot of five-year-olds before touchscreens and online video were commonplace, I was quite obsessed at a young age with dinosaurs. Not only did I have an entire bookshelf sectioned off just for dinosaur books, I memorized hundreds of their names, studied their skeletal structure, where to find their fossils, and anything else I could find out about dinosaurs – I was dead set on the notion of becoming a paleontologist, even before I really knew how to spell that word or what they really did. (Only later did I find out that their days are spent more in offices examining evidence and studying history than hunting fossils in the middle of deserts.) And I specifically recall my first-ever Google search being something relating to comparing the heights of dinosaurs in the Cretaceous period, and how magical that moment felt.
So the five-year-old Linus wanted to be a paleontologist. But a decade later… well, I don’t think I’m any closer to becoming one just yet. Actually, I’m probably objectively farther away from that dream, because not only have I not kept up-to-date with dinosaur facts that used to fascinate me, I also forgot the names of nearly all of the hundreds of dinosaurs I knew from memory, except for the ones any reasonable human being would know. And classifying dinosaurs by the structure of their pelvic skeletons? Forget it. The paleontologist Linus is dead, replaced by the blogger Linus.
But the weird thing is, long after I realized that I’d forgotten almost everything I knew about dinosaurs at that young of an age, i still felt bad for not continuing to learn things about dinosaurs. I felt guilty for forgetting the things I used to know. And that same feeling hit me a second time when I realized I’d forgotten a huge chunk of physics and math I used to know and enjoy as I shifted my time more towards the arts*. But it didn’t really make sense that I felt bad about not being true to my dreams, because they weren’t my dreams. They were the dreams of myself when I was younger. My dreams that were overtaken by other ones that I thought were more valuable. So why did I feel like I was losing something worth so much when I “betrayed” my old dreams?
Hank Green, entrepreneur and one half of the vlogbrothers YouTube channel, talked a bit about this idea during the XOXO Festival a few years ago. He felt that holding on to old dreams limited us rather than made us better, and rejected the idea that we should be somehow “loyal” to our old dreams and what we used to want to be. Not only because the most recent versions of ourselves are more experienced, but also because, as he put it, they “literally do not exist”. But… is that really true? They might not exist in a physical form, but they’re still a part of our identities. The paleontologist Linus and the budding physicist Linus are both still a part of me; they’re a huge part of why I exist today as the person I am. So does that not make their “old dreams” somehow still relevant? That’s the question I wanted to answer.
One of the three high-level goals that I set out for myself this year is to find what I want to do with my life,** because I’ve considered so many things previously that it’d be impossible for me to choose a major or a career goal outright. But as a part of that process of looking for a passion, I’ve had to deny myself a lot of my past dreams, and that put the question of loyalties to old dreams at the forefront. And while I was pursing that question, I also found that this question isn’t too far from another dilemma I’ve considered as I crossed cultural boundaries – how much should we try to hold on to our tradition and heritage, and how much should we try to let go in the name of progress? The two questions aren’t really that far from one another – both childhood dreams and traditions in culture define us and create our identities, but they’re also trails in the past that, when we hold on to them for far too long, can start to pull us down and away from moving on and progressing into the future.
As a culture, moving on and evolving into accepting new ideas and traditions isn’t a process of abandoning the past, but a process of finding new and different ways of expressing the same underlying cultural ideals.
I think ultimately, my preference is to leave behind the traditions and the old dreams to be most faithful to what I believe in now and how the world works now, rather than trying to “preserve” a tradition or dreams from when I was younger. And I think a key idea in reaching that conclusion was realizing that moving on from the past isn’t remotely the same thing as forgetting them or being somehow “disloyal” to our past. The elusive thing about moving on is that the paleontologist-wannabe Linus and who I am right now are not two different people; likewise, the old traditions that we try so hard to preserve aren’t distinct from newer trends and ideas in our culture. They’re not different because one can’t exist without the other, and history always leaves a trail. The reason I was so fascinated by dinosaurs and physics wasn’t just because I loved the notion of oversized reptiles with comically disproportionate body parts. Dinosaurs interested me because I found the idea of discovering something we can’t see or feel through fossils and evidence really cool. And even though my passion for dinosaurs has died down quite a bit over the last decade, the underlying love of thinking about things beyond my few decades of existence is still there, and it’s clearly a part of my personal identity. And the same goes for culture: moving on and evolving into accepting new ideas and traditions isn’t a process of abandoning the past, but a process of finding new and different ways of expressing the same underlying cultural ideals.
When a caterpillar goes through metamorphosis into a butterfly, we don’t say the caterpillar died – that’d be ridiculous. We just accept that the butterfly is an expression of what the caterpillar represented. They’re different forms of the same individual. In the same way, my moving on from my old dreams to find new pursuits isn’t abandoning my old dreams, and a culture adopting new ideas and “evolving” isn’t ignoring old traditions or “abandoning its roots” – traditions don’t define who we are, both as individuals and as cultures. Our ideas and values that inspire those traditions and dreams are a part of who we are. We’re defined by our dreams, and we grow with them, but we shouldn’t be held back by what no longer inspires us.
* It’s been one of the weirdest experiences I’ve had to read something I’ve written, and recognize that I’ve written those words before, but not understand what I was trying to say because I’m using the words and ideas I’ve forgotten already.
** As John Green, the other half of vlogbrothers, will tell you, that’s a phrase wrongly put – future is not a monolithic enemy to be conquered, but an amalgam of possibilities that won’t become realized and unexpected paths we’ll take by a dice roll. Yes, I realize his point. But I also realize that career choices are inevitable, and that means the options of what I can do in the future as the dominant part of my life are narrowing.
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