Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Brooks: It's Not About You

David Brooks had a column in the New York Times today, It’s Not About You, that got some attention around the web. It's mostly about all the stupid things that people say in commencement speeches. I found this article nicely refreshing for a number of reasons. While I’m not sure that I agree with Brooks’ assessment of the sad state of the world that we’ve bequeathed our children, the rest provides a lot of good stuff to chew on.

First off, I never liked the advice to follow your dreams. It always struck me as mostly banal, hopelessly individualistic and was about the same as saying do whatever you want to do. And it’s absolutely devoid of moral content. No doubt Timothy McVeigh was following a dream when he blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.

I also agree that kids today mostly live in a way too structured environment. We now have play dates. The common phrases we hear today are life lived on a leash and helicopter parents. Parents, I think, need to be a bit more selfish, or have more interests than just their kids. As Brooks points out, this much control does not serve our children well. I always liked the phrase "benign indifference."

And then, as I will discuss at a much greater length in another blog entry – if I ever get it finished – the idea of “finding yourself” is not only another one of these empty expressions that doesn’t stand up to much thought, but it is blatantly anti-existentialist. It suggests that there is a pre-existent blueprint of yourself out there for you to find. Sartre rejects the idea of a pre-existent self: "Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself." I think that Brooks mostly has it right: we don’t discover ourselves; we form ourselves by what we do.

Finally, the last lines – “The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.” – deserve comment. It reminds me of the guy with the impossible name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He’s one of the happiness psychologists. He proposes that happiness is achieved paradoxically by forgetting about whether you’re happy or not. So following your dream of happiness will most likely just make you unhappy. He, instead, has proposed this concept of “flow,” in which you are so deeply engaged in what you are doing that you forget yourself. Let’s let Csikszentmihalyi explain it:
In the early seventies, I spoke with chess players, rock climbers, musicians, and inner-city basketball players, asking them to describe their experience when what they were doing was really going well. I really expected quite different stories to emerge. But the interviews seemed in many important ways to focus on the same quality of the experience. For instance, the fact that you were completely immersed in what you were doing, that the concentration was very high, that you knew what you had to do moment by moment, that you had very quick and precise feedback as to how well you were doing, and that you felt that your abilities were stretched but not overwhelmed by the opportunities for action. In other words, the challenges were in balance with the skills. And when those conditions were present, you began to forget all the things that bothered you in everyday life, forget the self as an entity separate from what was going on—you felt you were a part of something greater and you were just moving along with the logic of the activity.
This is happiness.


Rodney said...

It's not about happiness. It's not about becoming one with your community. It's about putting yourself in your place - just like a disobedient child who's made to stand in a corner.

Brooks' message is doubly cynical in refusing to admit the cynicism that lurks beneath.

James R said...

If the bad news is that commencement addresses are giving the wrong messages to graduates, the good news is that practically no one remembers, let along acts upon, their commencement address.

(Al Gore recently gave a commencement speech where he admitted one step further: “I tried to remember who the commencement speaker was and I have to acknowledge to you that I have no idea,” he said. “And I dare say that years from now, unless I just tricked you into remembering, you will have absolutely no idea who gave this speech.” Of course, he went on to give the required 20 minute talk complete with warnings of global warming.)

Big Myk said...

To James R.: Not every commencement speech is forgettable. In 1979, the same year I graduated from law school, I went to Tom's graduation from Boston College (according to Amy Poehler -- also a Boston College grad -- mentioned in her Harvard commencement speech this year, some call Boston College the "Harvard" of Boston).

In any event, the commencement speaker was then Vice-President Walter Mondale. He was plugging the SALT II nuclear arms treaty. And I remember him saying something like this, taken from another speech he gave in 1979:

"One warhead on a Poseidon missile has more than twice the explosive power than the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. On one Poseidon submarine there are 140 such warheads. One submarine carries more explosive power than all the bombs, conventional and nuclear, dropped throughout World War II. And we have not one such submarine, we have 31 such submarines. And they carry only a portion of the 10 thousand warheads in our arsenal." And building to a crescendo he concludes with the question, "how many times over must we be able to destroy the world before we are willing to reduce our nuclear arsenals?"

At my own graduation, I have no idea who spoke or what he said.

James R said...

Mondale was smart enough to avoid Brooks' (and your) criticism of promoting 'follow your dreams' and replace it with promoting "scare the bejabers out of them"—apparently a more effective means to be remembered.

James R said...

Or, then again, maybe Amy Poehler is just weird.

James R said...

First of all, disregard the above comment about Amy Poehler. I thought she was mentioned because she remembered her commencement address, but I now see she was only included for the joke about Boston College.

Secondly, as you pursue your opus on the idea of "finding yourself", you may what to look at a NY Times article entitled, "In Search of the True Self" by Joshua Knobe.