“Slow down you crazy child,
You’re so ambitious for a juvenile,
But then if you’re so smart
Tell me why are you still so afraid?”
-“Vienna,” Billy Joel
Look, our generation wasn’t just brought up on Wheaties with plenty of milk to make us grow strong. In between we were fed a whole lot of self-esteem boosters and participation trophies. Our uniqueness was emphasized and self-fulfillment made a prize. Our childhoods were scheduled and programmed–practice, play date, homework time, free time, bedtime…
It’s easy to recognize the persistence of this behavior in the way orchestrate our lives today. Here, at college, it’s easy to build grandiose plans. And because of how college is marketed–“the college experience,” they say as though it were a time-share in Maui–we place insane demands upon our time and energy to maximize our utility. But rather than assume college is the influencing factor we should consider it a symptom of the achievement culture our parents promoted.
Our childhoods, in totality, could sometimes seem to be a coordinated effort to practice being the best at something, if not more than one thing. We were persistently told in one form or another to think big in order to achieve. The problem, of course, is that an entire generation of kids can’t all be the best. We’ve been fed the virtue of self-esteem but soon we encounter all-too-convincing counter-narratives to the bullshit our parents told us about our self-worth: that achieving is much more than a function of how you view yourself. But also, let us recognize that achieving isn’t essential to our spiritual tranquility.
In his book The Road to Character David Brooks calls this culture the Big Me culture. He utilizes historical examples of people whose austere, self-effacing character was central to their leadership and service–Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, Bayard Rustin, among others–to discuss the importance of what are often considered more classic values. Humility displaces vanity and narcissism in this conception of character. Public spiritedness, or dedication to something larger than the self, displaces individual advancement. Brooks intriguingly notes 1950’s just 12% of high school seniors imagined themselves as very important people, whereas today the number is 80%.
He also addresses how this has manifest in our media culture. Formerly people were “peripheral stars in the mass media world” but today they are “the sun at the center of [their] own media solar system, creating a network of programs, apps, and pages oriented around their own needs.” Again, to the modern reader this may seem like progress, but consider the decisive shift in focus. A communal, appointment gathering was lost to a self-aggrandizing activity available for consumption at the individual’s leisure. As he said in an interview with NPR, we are presenting the world “with a highlight reel of our life…where we’re really praised and rewarded for celebrating ourselves all the time.”
The achievement psyche we’ve developed, then, can be understood as a shift from notions of public spirit and character reformation, of humility and hard work to one of individual success and self-promotion. To use a sports analogy, it’s a competition between Derek Jeter values and Kobe Bryant ones. So what might happen if we tried to be Derek Jeter instead of Kobe Bryant? What would happen if we narrowed our goals from the grandiose “résumé virtues” that Brooks describes to developing more “eulogy virtues,” the impactful traits people might recall at your funeral? Would fulfillment be more attainable in a culture that promoted eulogy virtues over a vain, achievement mindset?
Perhaps we could all afford to try thinking smaller. The whole college atmosphere is founded on anxiety about the future, so we compensate with checklists to make us feel secure. Perhaps instead should we cast aside consciousness of our desired GPA in favor of building good work ethic. We focus less on planning spectacular social activities in favor of cultivating meaningful relationships. Or we consider not just leadership positions but leadership traits. And if these suggestions seem redundant, it’s not a mistake. We’ve made the error of thinking out of order. We put the pretty GPA before the work ethic when, in fact, developing that virtue is the true purpose. A GPA is a ruler, not a goal.
By narrowing, by thinking small and focusing on the cultivation of eulogy virtues we can liberate ourselves from the unrealistic expectations that have been programmed into us. Frankly, we will not all have résumé success. (“Dream on but don’t imagine they’ll all come true.” -Billy Joel) But if that is the only virtue you prize–as our achievement culture teaches us–life will be spent feeling persistently inferior. It must then be possible to derive satisfaction not from our impressive careers but from the impact we have on other people.
Featured photo credit: David Lynch’s Club Silenco, Day in Paris 09-10/11/2012 via photopin (license)