There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy (Hamlet, I.5)
I probably started collecting baseball cards somewhere around the time I was in the third grade.
Kids would bring their baseball cards in to school and excitedly talk about their rarity, value and the all-important stats. Listening to these conversations around the lunch table I came to the conclusion that these cardboard homages to the baseball gods would be my ticket to social grace.
I told my father I wanted baseball cards. Ever resourceful, he called up his friend who had a son who sold baseball cards. Perfect. He bought me an entire set — Topps brand, every card, rookies and all. I studied them. I sorted them neatly into plastic trading card pages and organized them in binders. I organized them alphabetically; I organized them by team; I probably even organized them by the color of their jerseys. I think you get the point: I really enjoyed organizing them.
I looked at the backs of the cards over and over again trying to make sense of all the numbers — to internalize the wisdom that could gain me entry into that all important lunchroom conversation…to no avail. I enjoyed baseball cards the way a librarian might enjoy the challenge of cataloging books written in some foreign language he doesn’t speak.
The problem — as you might have guessed by now — was I had actually never watched a game.
Needless to say, I never was able to participate in the great conversation of the third grade.
This story of my youthful hobby illustrates two very important psychological concepts: ambition and idealization.
At first glance we might say that my ambition was to collect baseball cards, but that would be incorrect. My ambition was to be one of the gang. The difficulty emerged due to what’s called idealization. Idealization is the tendency to attribute perfection to someone that is beyond what’s there in reality.
I idealized the kids who could talk about baseball cards while they idealized the baseball players. They were the cool kids. My ambition became shaped by my idealization.
Youth is characterized by idealization — both for the good and for the bad. Maturity is characterized by a shift from idealization to realistic ideals. In this case, when I was older I was able to slowly replace my idealization of the cool kids with ideals.
But that’s not the whole truth of the matter. One never ceases to idealize other people. The trick is to be aware of what’s happening and add some intention to your idealization. With intention one can more easily focus on the ideal instead of the person. This has the added benefit of limiting the inevitable disappointment that come when someone doesn’t live up to your idealization. (Something my youthful companions probably had to experience more than once with their baseball idols.)
Perhaps even more importantly, true maturity is characterized by honoring the degree to which other people (including our idealized heroes) are so much more (and sometimes so much less) than we can contain in our imagination.