Friday, June 6, 2014

Advice for College Graduates

I don’t spend much time wishing I was wealthier.  Sure, every now and then, particularly when tuition bills are due (here’s looking at you, kids), I think having a really large bank balance would be nice.  But, all in all, I am remarkably content with my wealth level. 

Until now.

Right now, I wish I was fabulously wealthy, so fabulously wealthy that I wouldn't notice an expenditure of about $1500 a year, so wealthy that I wouldn't think that if I was spending that much, I was depriving my family of anything.  I am not sure how much wealth I would need so that I didn’t notice $1500 a year, but it would presumably be a lot. 

The object of my desire.  A book.

I just finished Charles Murray’s, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life.

Having read it, I now want to hand a copy to all my students as a graduation present, though I would want to give them that graduation present at the end of their sophomore or junior year.  I’m guessing I could easily hand out 100 copies a year.  Roughly $15 a copy (as of this minute, $13.32 at Amazon).  $1500 a year (or at the current price a mere $1332 a year).  Every one of those students would benefit immensely, immensely, from reading this book.  Indeed, in all honesty, I cannot think of a book of advice I would more whole-heartedly endorse for a college student at an elite liberal arts college than this one.  I feel an acute sense of guilt that I will not be handing this book to all my students.  They would benefit so much from it.

Now I do have quibbles with the book.  Most importantly, the title.  Having read it, the title makes perfect sense.  But before I read it, I had the wrong impression; that wrong impression will limit the number of people who read this book—and that is a tragedy.  This is not a book for curmudgeons on how to get ahead.  It is a book by a curmudgeon giving advice to everyone, curmudgeon or not.  As Murray notes, the world is full of curmudgeons.  Curmudgeons, in fact, are the people who will be hiring you.  You will meet them all the time.  And curmudgeons judge you.  You may not like it, you may wish they didn’t, but they do.  And curmudgeons judge you because your behavior is not very good.  You are squandering your life.  You are obsessed with silly things.  For example, you think judging is bad; curmudgeons judge you for such soft, brainless thinking.  You don’t understand proper grammar, you don’t know how to rewrite or proofread, you don’t dress well (ouch!), and it all adds up to you don’t know how to interact with people older and wiser than you.  This book will tell you how to improve yourself.  The improvements will be dramatic.  And they will make you happier.

It’s that last bit which will really jar my typical student.  In an age in which happiness is confused with doing whatever you want at the present moment, the whole idea that reforming your actions now so that you can build a deep and satisfying life later on is anathema.  And, particularly galling is the idea that anyone can tell you what will make you happy in the long run.  Well, we curmudgeons can tell you what will make you happy in the long run.  We can easily tell you because we are wise.  Indeed, our wisdom is what makes us curmudgeons—we see so much foolishness that we get terribly curmudgeonly.

What will make you happy?  Family, vocation, community and faith.  You need all four.  The modern liberal arts college prepares a student to achieve happiness in precisely zero of those four realms.  We don’t ever, ever!, talk about family.  We don’t know the difference between “high paying and prestigious job” and “vocation,” and insist that the former is what matters.  We think “community” is Facebook and feel-good expressions of banal political correctness.  And faith?  Are you kidding?

It’s not just the deeper things and the way you present yourself that are the problem.  You are going about your life all wrong.  Leave home.  Do real work.  Stretch yourself.  Build resilience.  Don’t rush into a career.  Reflect often on good behavior.

Indeed, this book even has the bit of advice I spend more time giving students than just about anything else.  Stop worrying about your silly summer internship.  Internships don’t matter.  At all.  Nobody cares about your internship.  You will learn nothing at your “internship.”  Just go get a real job, doing real work and enjoy your summer reading some books and watching some movies and interacting with people who are not carbon copies of yourself.  Murray notes that there are a zillion summer resorts that want to hire college students for the summer.  Go get one of those jobs.  They will pay you and you will do low-skill work and you will learn more about yourself than you ever will filing papers on Wall Street for no pay.  And, funny thing—you can still get that 20 hour a day Wall Street job if you really want it when you graduate, because, you see, nobody cares what you did last summer.

I could go on and on, but all this is doing is making me wish I was fabulously wealthy, so wealthy I could just start handing this book out to every student who walks into my office with her latest life crisis, to every student who is graduating, to every student is worried about her summer internship, to every student who is depressed about grades.  This is the best book of practical wisdom I have ever read aimed at the college students of today.  I hate modern books of practical wisdom (I am a curmudgeon).  I love this book.

And if you are one of those fabulously wealthy people who wants to do some good, start giving this book out to every college student you know.  Or, send me a 100 copies a year and I will hand them out for you.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Only a Boy named David

Pity Poor Malcolm Gladwell.

Imagine you were a rather good journalist, who could write stories about people and events which were worth reading.  Interesting stories in which a fine ear for a telling anecdote helps illustrate a larger point.  Imagine you are making a decent career doing that.  Imagine you have worked your way up to writing for The New Yorker.  (The New Yorker! That is a magazine Easterners of High Class all read.  Californians?  Well, I never understood why a magazine pretending New York was the Center of the Universe made sense.  But, even still, if you are writing for The New Yorker you have arrived.  If you can make it there…)   Then suddenly, you have an idea: some of the sorts of stories you are telling can be linked together to tell an even larger story.  So, you write a book—a real book, not just a magazine article—which is roughly a collection of magazine-article-like things but united by this common theme, see, and thus it is a book—a real book—and so you get royalties and fame and go on talk shows, like, you know, an expert.  It is the journalist high.  So you do that.  Twice.  You publish The Tipping Point and Blink and you are famous and getting those Royalty Checks and you are on TV and people like you, they really, really like you.  You are famous!  And everyone loves your books.

So you do it again.  You write Outliers. And some people love it—you are famous, see, you get $45,000 for giving a speech, see, so you must write good books, right?  But, other people start noting something.  The book doesn’t really hang together as a book.  The seams are showing.  It reads more like a set of stories in which you are pretending there is a common theme.  The critics even make it into your Wikipedia entry: “The New Republic called the final chapter of Outliers, ‘impervious to all forms of critical thinking’ and said that Gladwell believes ‘a perfect anecdote proves a fatuous rule.’”  That hurts. 

So you go back to the drawing board and you publish a book which really is just a collection of your articles.  You don’t pretend otherwise.  Nobody even knows that book exists.  

So you go back to the well one more time, and you publish David and Goliath

Sigh.  I read that book.  And I sighed.  (See—the Sigh is right there three sentences ago.) 

The subtitle of David and Goliath is Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.  The essay on David is cute—while we think of David as an underdog, truth be told, if you were in ancient times and you were betting on a mano a mano between Behemoth and Slingshot Artist, you would want to put your money on the guy who can kill the other one from a  distance.  It’s a lot like a battle between a guy with a gun and a guy with a large sword.  Yeah, you saw that movie too.  (If you didn’t, see here.)  It was funny, laugh out loud funny because at first you think Indy is doomed, but then he pulls out a gun and you realize that the joke is that of course he would win.  David and Indiana Jones are the same guy.  Like I said, cute story—though Gladwell really should have made that Indiana Jones comparison.

So, a book about underdogs!  Americans love underdogs!  Americans love Gladwell—see those royalty checks!  So Americans will buy this book! And they did!  And…it’s not very good.  

Don’t get me wrong, the individual chapters are all good—if they were in a magazine I was reading, I’d like them.  (Then again, since I don’t read The New Yorker, I would be unlikely to see them.)  Gladwell does write well and he does have that ear for a good anecdote.  But, put all these articles together and pretend that the combination makes some larger point?  Uh…hardly.  If you tried to draw a large cohesive lesson from this book, you end up in a mess really fast.  I tried.  Briefly.  I gave up as soon as I tried to connect two chapters and realized that no matter which two chapters I picked, the larger story was inherently contradictory.  There is no larger story here.  There are some good individual chapters. 

Gladwell is an article writer, not a book writer.  But all the money is in books.  So, he will undoubtedly keep trying.  And the book market being what it is, it will be interesting to see how long before everyone notices that this here Emperor has No Clothes.   If you want to pay $45,000 to hear Gladwell give a talk, be my guest.  He probably even gives a really good talk.  But the strange part—the reason he gets these large checks is that everyone assumes he is writing books on a common theme, but he is really publishing collections of magazine articles.  And people who publish collections of magazine articles aren’t nearly as famous.

So, this is why you should pity Malcolm Gladwell.  Well, pity him as he is on the way to the bank cashing his checks…but that is beside the point.  Pity him.  Sooner or later, the game may end.  In the meantime, you should enjoy his books—just don’t be fooled into thinking that there is a larger point than is contained in the individual chapters.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Confessions of...Who?

“This is the only story of mine whose moral I know.  I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know that it is: we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

That is Kurt Vonnegut in the Introduction to Mother Night.  The story is about an American spy in Nazi Germany, who pretends to be a Nazi because, he is, after all, a spy, but the American government can’t acknowledge that he is working for the government because he is, after all, a spy, so everyone thinks he really is a Nazi.  His cover story is really good; you would never know he wasn't a Nazi.  So, is he a Nazi or not?  Vonnegut is claiming that if it walks like a Nazi and talks like a Nazi and acts like a Nazi, then it is, in fact, a Nazi.

In other words, Perception is Reality.

Another way of putting this: Vonnegut seems to be some sort of modern day Berkeley in which the thing which exists actually exists only in my mind—there is not reality outside of perception—but Vonnegut is adding that there also is no individual outside others’ perception of that individual.  I exist in your mind.  The “me” that you perceive is “me;” I am under a delusion if I think that there is some entity called “me” separate from your perception of “me.”  “Know thyself” is simply a command to “find out what others think about you.”

At first glance, it is hard to think Vonnegut is serious here.  Surely I exist separate from your perception of me.  Really, I do.  [Insert foot stomping.]

But, then I imagine:  suppose we have a person who knows himself to be really kind and generous.  Truly kind and generous; the most kind and generous person ever to exist.   This person never has a thought which isn’t kind and generous.   But everyone thinks the person is mean and nasty and completely self-absorbed.  Is that person kind and generous?  It is hard to imagine an argument that self-perception trumps external perception in a case like that.

Flip the question another way:  if I am kind in my heart and cruel in my actions, am I a kind or a cruel person?  It works the other way too: I am a very cruel and mean person at heart, but everyone thinks I am really nice and wonderful and kind.  What is the right way to describe me?  I run into that all the time. Theologically, I know that mankind is totally depraved.  Thus, I am totally depraved.  I am evil. I know the evil that lurks in my own heart.  Yet, when I tell people that I am evil, I am always met with an immediate shock and a rapid insistence that I am not evil at all.  Try as I might to convince people that I am evil, I always fail.  Always.  I insist that really, my heart is evil and nobody believes that my heart defines who I am.

Identity is a tricky thing.  If Vonnegut is right, I don’t get to define my own identity.  Others define my identity.  If I think I am a Giant Squid, if I truly believe that I am a Giant Squid, am I a Giant Squid?  I feel safe in assuming that you, Dear Reader, just thought: anyone who says he is a Giant Squid is crazy.  And crazy people don’t get to define their own identity.  We, Enlightened Society, get to decide the identity of Crazy People.  I am not Napoleon even if I think I am Napoleon. 

But, am I Jim Hartley if I think I am Jim Hartley?  Or am I only Jim Hartley if you, Dear Reader, think I am Jim Hartley?  And before you hasten to say that my identity exists independent of your evaluation of my identity, remember as soon as you say that I am the one who determines my identity, then I am going to insist that I am a Giant Purple Squid named Qxxwzk.  Will you then henceforth address me in terms appropriate to my true identity?

Here is where it gets troubling.  I write reflections on this blog.  Let’s imagine someone reads these reflections.  (Don’t laugh.  Let’s pretend that someone, somewhere, actually reads this blog.  (Wow!  Now that I think about it: if I think there is a Reader, does that mean there is a Reader?  Is it the case that not only is the identity of a person but the person’s actual existence dependent on perception?  So, does perceiving a Reader actually Create a Reader?  The mind reels. (It reels even more: if I think there is no Reader, does that mean you don’t exist? (That last question is seriously troubling.)))  To return:  imagine there is a Reader.  The Reader perceives me through my writings.  Am I then my writings? If Vonnegut is right and I am what I pretend to be, then that seems to mean I am what I write.  And if that is true, I truly am what I write on this blog, then perhaps I should be more careful about what I write. 

Perhaps I should stop denying my True Identity.