Saturday, June 13, 2015

Overcoming the Feel-Good Culture

Inspiration is overrated. Grinding it out is underrated. True love is largely overestimated. Duty and decency are largely underestimated.

So says Roger Cohen in a column addressed to young college and high school graduates.

The message resonates well with much of what I have been saying on this blog over the years. Surely, it is far superior to the ramblings of Cohen’s fellow New York Times columnist, David Brooks.

What, Cohen begins, is life all about?

He answers:

Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane.

In relation to yesterday’s post on marriage, one might say that a good marriage is a succession of tasks rather than an expression of true love, that it’s more about what you do than about how you feel.

Cohen also echoes my view of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule:

I have no idea if Malcolm Gladwell is onto something with the “10,000-hour rule” — the notion that this is the time required for the acquisition of perfected expertise in a particular field — but I am sure grind is underappreciated in our feel-good culture. Don’t sweat the details, but do sweat.

We would all do better if we buried our feel-good culture-- where what matters is how you really, really feel—and recovered our sense of decency and duty. And Cohen correctly adds that we should also get over the notion that life is about living our dream.

Again, note how many of these duties constitute everyday married life:

I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty — that half-forgotten word — may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day. Be stoical. Never whine. Think less about the why of what you do than getting it done. Get the column written. Start pondering the next.

I am less interested in the inspirational hero than I am in the myriad doers of everyday good who would shun the description heroic; less interested in the exhortation to “live your dream” than in the obligation to make a living wage.

Cohen’s fine presentation of classical ethics brings to mind the commencement address delivered last year at the University of Texas at Austin. By now the speech, delivered by Navy admiral William McRaven has gone viral, but no harm is done in emphasizing one of the first lessons McRaven learned when he joined the Navy Seals:

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can't do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

Note the last sentence. Get the little things right and you will have solid grounds for seeing yourself as someone who can get things right. Then it will be easier to get the big things right.


Webutante said...

This is so fine, Stuart. And I couldn't agree more with you.

Jim Sweeney said...

Sounds a lot like the broken windows policing theory to me.

Ares Olympus said...

Sure, good advice is always good by definition, like Nike "Just do it", right?

But you still have to define "it". Is duty what you agree to do, or what society decides for you? And how do you decide who is worthy to decide for you? And how do you deal with the fact that people are hypocrites and tell others what they should do while not doing the same for themselves?

I might look to a few answer, since I like lists.

Schumacher recogizes "tasks of man" as duties, but its more than making your bed and sweeping the floor. So it does look like we should start by mimicking the values of others we admire, but at some point you have to decide to claim these for yourself, or reject them, or find your own balance point. And that balance point may start towards self aggrandizement, what gets you personally ahead, but hopefully eventually you don't just do your duty because it serves you, but serves something greater.
Schumacher says that the tasks of an individual can be summed up as follows:
1. Learn from society and tradition.
2. Interiorize this knowledge, learn to think for yourself and become self-directed.
3. Grow beyond the narrow concerns of the ego.

And the four agreements look good framework for social participation, self-mastery and self-esteem.
The Four Agreements are:
1. Be Impeccable with your Word
2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
3. Don’t Make Assumptions
4. Always Do Your Best

And finally Gandhi's 7 social sins look the hardest, most abstract, needing the most reflective study, but maybe all warnings against the "feel good culture", even if that means requiring your beloved wife clean the toilet when its her turn.
The Seven Sins are:
1. Wealth without work.
2. Pleasure without conscience.
3. Knowledge without character.
4. Commerce without morality.
5. Science without humanity.
6. Worship without sacrifice.
7. Politics without principle.