In her 2018 memoir, Educated, Tara Westover, shared her incredible life story. She told of being raised by survivalist parents who did not permit her to go to school or see a doctor. In spite of it all and the accompanying trauma, she went on to go to Brigham Young University (her first class there was her first experience in a classroom) and then on to Oxford University and ultimately becoming a bestselling author. It took a great deal of courage for her to share her story.
This week she wrote something I would argue took even more courage. In her New York Times essay, “I Am Not Proof of the American Dream,” she sought not to re-write her life story but to correct how others have chosen to interpret it.
Writing, “A curious thing happens when you offer up your life for public consumption: People start to interpret your biography, to explain to you what they think it means.”
Some tell her, “You are living proof of the American dream, that absolutely anything is possible for anybody.”
She goes on to explain how her journey was only made possible through affordable public colleges and generous Pell Grants. Saying that the access and impact of both has been diminished. To bring her point home she notes that the cost of public universities has doubled since she went to school and Pell Grants previously covered almost 70% of costs vs. the less than 30% they cover today.
As someone who also went to a public university and received Pell Grants, she reminds me that my own journey may not have been possible today.
Westover performs a valuable public service in this essay, perhaps at some personal costs. We are drawn to “rags to riches” stories like hers. We want her to be the hero, an exemplar for others to follow. To be yet one more example that hard work is the primary, if not only, engine of our success. A more nuanced story of her experiences doesn’t sell as many books or land as many speaking gigs.
By taking back her story and pointing out with glaring clarity what others may have missed, she offers a clearer path for others to follow AND provides realistic solutions our country can take to make that path possible for more.
In closing she writes, “For my part, I will begin by telling my own story differently — by discarding that fashionable old fable that reduces any tale of success to one of grit and diligence. I will admit that, to be frank, it was an easier time, and things were better. Our institutions were better. Perhaps that is what the story is about, inasmuch as it is about anything. There is the one thing I learned when I cashed that check: that people cannot always be resilient, but a country can.”
Her essay is the perfect example of what I hope to achieve through much of my own work. To help others see and share our stories differently. One that includes not only our own effort but all those other factors that contributed to our journey. In the hopes that it can create a more realistic roadmap for others to follow and support.
Tbanks Tara. May your new story inspire others to follow suit.
So, how might you tell your own story differently?