Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Get Over Yourself

It’s become part of the ritual. As it hands out college diplomas, a college will feel obliged to season the entree with a sprinkling of very bad advice.

Yesterday, I took Jonathan Franzen to task for offering some exceptionally bad advice.

Today, I am more than happy to open with some great advice. it comes from David Brooks, and it’s even better than “Wear Sunscreen.”

Brooks advises recent graduates to learn that: “It’s Not About You.” Link here.

Upon graduation college students should be told that it’s time to get over their self-involved, self-centered world view. Above all else they need to get over themselves.

It’s an ugly world out there. Graduates who try to deal with it by following the bromides that commencement speakers are offering will be at a decided disadvantaget.

Brooks makes a number of important and salient points. Let’s review them and give them their due.

He believes that the young generation has been supervised and tutored to within an inch of its mental capacity. Now, we are inviting these same young people to enter a world where there are no clear guidelines and where the standard life track no longer seems to exist.

Brooks may be right that the young generation has been subjected to exceptionally strict adult supervision, but I suspect that if this were true, they would all have been brought up by Tiger Moms.

If the vicious debate about Amy Chua’s book told us anything, it revealed that far too many children receive insufficient supervision and suffer from diminished parental expectations.

Brooks feels that children who were brought up in highly structured environments will have difficulty adapting to free-wheeling unstructured uncertain situations. Certainly, it makes sense. One set of social skills will not always work in an alien environment.

However, I suspect that a child who has been trained to be disciplined and hard-working will do better in today’s world because he or she does not need a very structured environment.

If you can bring your own discipline and organization with you, you will do better in a world that no longer forces discipline and organization on you.

If you did not learn discipline and organization and good values at home or in school, you will do better in a highly structured environment, like the military or a corporation.

Brooks is right to see that the world that the boomers are leaving to the young generation is nothing like the world in which the boomers grew up.

Past college graduates had their future mapped out for them. They could get a job, get married, raise a family, get promoted, and so on. Some of them went to graduate school, got jobs, got married, raised families, got promoted, and so on.

The life track was fairly clear and well laid out. Such is no longer the case.

Allow Brooks to describe it: “Yet upon graduation they will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured. Most of them will not quickly get married, buy a home and have kids, as previous generations did. Instead, they will confront amazingly diverse job markets, social landscapes and lifestyle niches. Most will spend a decade wandering from job to job and clique to clique, searching for a role.”

The worst part,  in my view, is that these new graduates are being bombarded with bad advice from what I would call the therapy culture. I have often written about the ravages of the therapy culture, so I am happy to see Brooks offering a similar perspective.

Brooks does not use the term therapy culture, but the values he sees running amok at college graduations, and presumably, in college courses, owe their existence and survival to it.

Brooks describes it well: “Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.”

He continues: “College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.

“Today’s graduates are also told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go off and live their quest. But, of course, very few people at age 22 or 24 can take an inward journey and come out having discovered a developed self.”

Well explained and well presented. In these paragraphs Brooks articulates everything that is wrong and misleading about the therapy culture approach to life.

Commencement speakers should not be telling everyone to pursue happiness. They should, as Aristotle had it, tell  them to pursue excellence.

Brooks writes: “The graduates are also told to pursue happiness and joy. But, of course, when you read a biography of someone you admire, it’s rarely the things that made them happy that compel your admiration. It’s the things they did to court unhappiness — the things they did that were arduous and miserable, which sometimes cost them friends and aroused hatred. It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most.”

The meaning of life does not lie in self-actualization; it lies, Brooks explains, in a job well done: “Today’s grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life. But, of course, as they age, they’ll discover that the tasks of a life are at the center. Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly.”

Allow me to offer a couple of examples, ripped from the headlines.

This morning Jennifer Rubin drew a great moral lesson from Memorial Day. Link here. She shows us that it’s not just commencement speakers who are peddling bad values.

Reflecting on the politicians who announce that they are not going to run for office because they place the good of their family above their duty to the country, Rubin writes: “Who’s more noble: the pol who decides not to run for the White House or the soldier, marine or sailor who goes overseas no matter how much he loves his family?”

Obviously, she is talking about Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour.

Rubin continues: “If a pol believes his country needs him, is the family dislocation — which involves no personal danger, comes with many perks, permits weekends and vacations with the family, and allows (if they so desire) relocating the family to Washington — justification for not serving? Patriotism, the extraordinary courage and everyday stress borne by our military and their families are something to admire. Many of us could not imagine undertaking it. So if a pol can’t tolerate a far more minor inconvenience, perhaps he should keep it to himself, lest the rest of us think worse of him.”

Her point is well taken. Even if his family has vetoed his presidential run, a politician would set a better example and retain some of his self-respect and kept it to himself.
The therapy culture tells us all to share. Our self-respect tells us to learn to keep more to ourselves.

While we are talking about politicians ducking the presidential race for reasons that have more to do with the therapy culture than with their duty to the country, I would add New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

As I wrote last week, the Christie dodge, namely that he does not feel ready to run for the presidency, is misses the point. Do you believe that the soldiers who go off to war should wait until they feel that they are ready?

Chris Christie needs to get over himself; he needs to figure out that it’s not all about him. It’s about the nation’s future, his duty to his country, and his place in history.

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