Tuesday, July 30, 2019

David Brooks Wants Men to Be More Like Women

David Brooks married his assistant, a woman named Anne Snyder, and found religion. Having disposed of his aging first wife, he found a younger model. Better yet, he found a way to blame it on God. And to write a book about it all, thus profiting from it.

Give him some credit for obfuscation. And for running an intellectual confidence trick. In a time when feminism led the way to destigmatizing divorce, lo and behold, aging men are exploiting the new rules to trade in their older wives for younger versions. Why feminism did not understand that destigmatizing divorce would disadvantage women is beyond me. 

Today, Brooks offers yet another sloppily conceived column where he explains that sloppy conceptualization is a sign of superior work/life balance. Better to write mediocre columns if that allows him to flourish… to go out and to smell the petunias.

You see, Brooks explains, feminism taught men, in particular, to seek more work life balance, to take more time off, to spend more time with the children, to sacrifice career ambition and hard work in order to… be more like women.

You think I am kidding. Here’s Brooks himself:

Furthermore, living a great life is more important than producing great work. A life devoted to one thing is a stunted life, while a pluralistic life is an abundant one. This is a truth feminism has brought into the culture. Women have rarely been able to live as monads. They were generally compelled to switch, hour by hour, between different domains and roles: home, work, market, the neighborhood.

A better definition of success is living within the tension of multiple commitments and trying to make them mutually enhancing. The shape of this success is a pentagram — the five-pointed star. You have your five big passions in life — say, family, vocation, friends, community, faith — and live flexibly within the gravitational pull of each.

You join communities that are different from one another. You gain wisdom by entering into different kinds of consciousness. You find freedom at the borderlands between your communities.

For his last paragraph we should award Brooks with a special prize for vapid pseudo-philosophy. What is the drool about different kinds of consciousness. Does he think that he’s a Hegelian philosopher? You do not find freedom by parceling yourself out to different activities. You find mediocrity. Or better, you do it because your new young wife told you to slow down and spend more time with her.

At least, Brooks does not have to worry about producing great work. You might imagine that he is rationalizing his own mediocre work by explaining that he is now living what he calls an “abundant” life. And he confuses abundance with pluralism-- meaning that he did not spend enough time thinking about what he was doing?

What is pluralistic abundance? One suspects that it is a cheap version of the normal psycho pabulum that promotes what is called flourishing. The word itself, as I have often noted, means flowering. If you flourish you are going to become vegetation, as in a flowering plant. Why this should be of any value, I have no idea. At the least, it is the therapy culture consolation for missing out on the promotion or even getting fired for being too lackadaisical about your work.

For the record, I have seen it happen. I did not make it up. What does Brooks have to say to the men who have been fired or who have not been promoted because they were less responsible and less reliable? Will he console them with the thought that they have better work/life balance? Or that they have mutually enhancing multiple commitments.

Trust me, if the order is not filled, if the contract is written sloppily, if the client cannot get in touch with you… you can whine all you want about multiple commitments or even pluralistic abundance. But you are not going to be keeping the job or the client.

Take an obvious example: you belong to a team that is competing for the championship. You are competing against another team. Which is the better way to train: to work long and hard to prepare, or to take more time off, to relax and smell the roses, to spend more time at leisure activities? 

I do not need to tell you that champions work to win. They seek victory, not abundance. If they slack off in training they are more likely to lose and are more likely to get injured. To imagine that they can console themselves after a loss by saying that they have a puralistically abundant life is rank nonsense. Try explaining that to the punters who have bet on the team.

If Brooks had spent enough time on his job he might have read Claire Cain Miller’s piece about gender differences and work/life balance. Last April, Miller reported that being a partner in a law firm requires one to be on call, all the time. No one is going to become a partner by copping out of important meetings to go home and change diapers. You might think that this is sexist bigotry. But it is also the reality of many people’s lives.

As for the couple in Miller’s report, the wife/mother spends more time with her children while her husband is out lawyering. Because paternal and maternal roles are not interchangeable. No one is allowed to say this in public, but still the truth is the truth. Hard work takes time. It takes a lot of time. If you want to succeed in the world, hard work is the key.

Brooks is leading men down the primrose path of dalliance-- to coin a phrase. It is not going to end well.

Anyway, Brooks opens his column with the examples of Auguste Rodin and Rainer Maria Rilke, a sculptor and a poet. They did not have work/life balance. But they produced great works. Eventually, he will denigrate them for not being nice people, even for being jerks. Think about that one: what has the judgmental Brooks gained by demeaning men who have achieved far more than he ever will? And what does he gain by flinging jejune schoolyard epithets at them? Aside from making himself look like a jerk.

Her is his opening:

Soren Kierkegaard asked God to give him the power to will one thing. Amid all the distractions of life he asked for the power to live a focused life, wholeheartedly, toward a single point.

And we’ve all known geniuses and others who have practiced a secular version of this. They have found their talent and specialty. They focus monomaniacally upon it. They put in the 10,000 hours (and more) that true excellence requires.

I just read “You Must Change Your Life,” Rachel Corbett’s joint biography of the sculptor Auguste Rodin and his protégé, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and they were certainly versions of this type.

The elder Rodin had one lesson for the young Rilke. “Travailler, toujours travailler.” Work, always work.

This is the heroic vision of the artist. He renounces earthly and domestic pleasures and throws himself into his craft. Only through total dedication can you really see deeply and produce art.

You will notice the sly underhanded critique of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. Gladwell argued that if you have the talent-- it is essential to have the talent-- you must put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become great at what you are good at. He is right. He expressed the point well.

Anyway, Brooks does not care that Rodin and Rilke produced great art. He judges them ill for having misspent their lives. Note well, Brooks is being highly judgmental here. 

He continues:

They were both horrid to their wives and children. Rodin grew pathetically creepy, needy and lonely. Rilke didn’t go back home as his father was dying, nor allow his wife and child to be with him as he died. Both men lived most of their lives without intimate care.

Their lives raise the question: Do you have to be so obsessively focused to be great? The traditional masculine answer is yes. But probably the right answer is no.

Brooks, who has never produced and will never produce works that come close to those of the two men, has no business telling us what it takes to do great work. Note that, in his currently woke state, he blames it all on traditional masculinity. He has drunk the feminist Kool-Aid. It has taken over his mind. Sad story, if you will.

He will tell us that a singular focus is not good for your work, and that you will do better work if you become more distracted. He does not use the term distraction, but it’s the  key to sustaining multiple focuses. One might suggest that he is trotting out a cheap trick: he wants us to believe that the team with more work/life balance will win out at the end. You see, you do not need to choose. You can have it all and you can do it all… and you will not only flourish, but you will succeed in the end. This is a ruse to dupe the gullible.

He quotes one David Epstein:

The people who achieve excellence tend to have one foot outside their main world. “Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least 22 times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician or other type of performer,” Epstein writes.

He shows the same pattern in domain after domain: People who specialize in one thing succeed early, but then they slide back to mediocrity as their minds rigidify.

Children who explore many instruments when they are young end up as more skilled musicians than the ones who are locked into just one. People who transition between multiple careers when they are young end up ahead over time because they can take knowledge in one domain and apply it to another.

A tech entrepreneur who is 50 is twice as likely to start a superstar company than one who is 30, because he or she has a broader range of experience. A survey of the fastest-growing tech start-ups found that the average age of the founder was 45.
For most people, creativity is precisely the ability to pursue multiple interests at once, and then bring them together in new ways. “Without contraries is no progression,” William Blake wrote.

People who do math and science excel when they are young. And when they put all of their energy into their work. When they live for their work. Such fields belong to the young. You do not win a Nobel prize for a body of work. You can win it for a singular achievement. And then, as you age, you will discover that you are not as good as abstract reasoning. Perhaps it’s about brain function. Blaming it on too much hard work is disingenuous.

As for tech startups, the names Gates and Zuckerberg and Brin and Page come to mind. They started their companies when they were very young. And when they were obsessed with working.

Clearly, an executive needs to have a broad range of experience and a broad understanding about the workings of his company. He will gain it through time and effort on the job, but rarely by taking time off for little league.

But then, after telling us that we can become great by having a multitude of interests, Brooks adds, in the first quote above, that producing great works is less important than living a great life.

We do not really know what he means by living a great life, but we would humbly suggest that you are not going to have a very great life if you keep losing out. Besides, didn’t Brooks consider that if you have the talent to write poetry and you let your talent wither because you refuse to spend the time needed to improve it… you are not going to feel very good about yourself. If you have the talent to be a great sculptor you are not going to feel very good about mediocre work, even if you sabotaged your work by spending more time with your comely young wife.


whitney said...

It is so embarrassing to me that I read one of his books, The Social Animal, and enjoyed it. The only excuse I have is I was in the hospital after horrible accident tons of painkillers so it must have dulled my wits

sharecropper said...

I am grateful that Jonas Salk, Madame Curie, & Louis Pasteur did not seek "work/life balance". You are right, Brooks is full of hooey.

trigger warning said...

David Epstein is a sportswriter.

David Foster said...

A rather confused article from Brooks. It is true that many highly-successful people have interests outside of their work: information-theory pioneer Richard Hamming was a juggler and unicyclist, as well as a chess player; Alan Turing was a competition-quality long-distance runner. Einstein, IIRC, was a pretty good violinist.

It is also true that certain work environments place an undue emphasis on raw hours worked.

But still, pursuing a serious career does require focus and sacrifices. The jet engine pioneer Gerhard Neumann, who ran and largely created GE's huge jet engine business, wrapped up his memoir with the following thoughts:

"Inevitably, I am asked if, knowing what I know now, I would again steer the same course in my postwar career and accept General Electric's offer for the top position in its jet engine business, then hold it for seventeen long years. Climbing the ladder of success was made easy for me, and I was regarded handsomely, not only with regard to the salary I received: There was a lot of recognition, satisfaction, and personal pride involved. But the price I paid was very high...There was barely time left to spend with my wife, who understood the problem and wanted me to do whatever I felt I had to do. I tried to be a reasonably good father, yet my three children had to grow up without much attention from their old man...I will not answer here the question, Would you do it again...? I leavelit at that; but I want to alert ambitious go-getters to ponder very carefully the problems that go with accepting a promotion to a top position and the price they will have to pay, before they say, "Yes sir. Thank you.""

Matt said...

Meh, I'm with Brooks. Balance is not the same as laxity. One can do great work and still have boundaries. But even granting your premise, how happy are the guys who achieve partner but end up twice divorced and absent from the lives of their kids? Most of us are not going to be a Michelangelo, Tolstoy, or Pasteur. I maintain that one can do excellent work while still having other priorities, but if I have to choose between being a great husband and father or being at the top of my field, the choice is easy. Not to mention - despite your scorn, Brooks is pretty accomplished by any reasonable standard.

David Foster said...

One thing Brooks seems to ignore: What do *women* think/feel about his recommended strategy?...really and truly, deep down, not just at the superficial virtue-signaling level?

Indeed, would his new wife have been attracted to him had he not been successful, high-status, and prominent? She may not know herself: in addition to conscious gold-digging, there are subconscious attraction factors.

Kipling wrote an interesting poem which is relevant here. The context was an 1890 proposal by Kaiser Wilhelm II for some kind of European-wide social reform, intended to help the working classes.


"You can lighten the curse of Adam when you've lifted the curse of Eve"

Sam L. said...

Not that I needed one, but now I have another reason to dislike David Brooks.

"Why feminism did not understand that destigmatizing divorce would disadvantage women is beyond me." Overconfidence. Failure to fully investigate possible problems. Thinking they're smarter than men (SEE: Overconfidence.)

Anonymous said...

One reason for men not to be like women is that for a significant number of women style always wins over substance. Action always loses to a pretty speech. Accomplishment loses out to niceties. They will trade freedom for slavery if it sounds good.

UbuMaccabee said...

Anon, I think you just described the Obama mystique.