The Danger of Becoming the Stories We Tell

The idea of the “personal narrative” is that we take selective events or periods from our lives and combine them with larger ideas and purpose in order to get somewhere else.

In order to get somewhere else. Perhaps it’s a job interview, or in conversation at a conference; maybe you’ve been asked to give a speech, or you’re applying to graduate school. The reality is that in living our lives daily we do not think about a “personal narrative” so clearly defined. If we meet someone in a casual social situation, we may describe ourselves, but it will not be in the same way as we would describe ourselves in an interview. The “getting somewhere” is what separates describing ourselves to someone and telling a personal narrative; the former is done simply for its own sake, the latter to get somewhere or something.

Not that a personal narrative need be untruthful, but in their selectivity and in their tailoring to the “somewhere” that we are trying to get, personal narratives are likely to anchor us to parts of ourselves that in daily life are not necessarily most important. We may emphasise certain skills or personality traits that, true, we do possess, but which our friends would not think to mention if describing us.

The difference in what we describe in a personal narrative as opposed to what we would tell a friend is the difference between what David Brooks calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”. We describe the parts of ourselves that will help a company grow its bottom line, or which will impress a graduate school program—skills, past work experience, competitiveness. Yet those are not the things that make us who we are. To our friends and family, or to the people we go cycling with during the weekend, what matters is whether we are kind and caring, thoughtful and conscientious, able to switch off from work and enjoy life, interested in others’ lives.

The danger in telling a personal narrative is that we may come to believe it; that in repeating so often and so forcefully the kind of person we are, other parts of self may start to fall away. The narrative, to repeat, may not be untruthful, but a narrative is by necessity never the whole truth. “I am an a, b, c” kind of person, “and x, y, z events from my life show that”, and “that’s why I’m perfect to get this (job, graduate program, etc)”. You are a, b and c, but also much of the alphabet besides, including qualities and values that are far more important.

In our attempt to “get somewhere”, the personal narratives we tell focus on the external parts of our lives that when all is said and done matter very little. And if we aren’t careful—if we spend our time climbing, always looking for the next thing, always “applying”—we will come to embody the personal narratives we tell, lacking in humanity and virtue as they necessarily do.

How We Start Our Days is How We Start Our Lives

I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of Annie Dillard before I came across a quotation of hers. Yet as some quotations seem inexplicably to do, hers bowled me over; made me freeze at the full stop, made me stare out the window at nothing in particular and caused that wonderful zooming-out of perspective that I often think is three-quarters of the reason why I read.

The quotation said, simply and nonchalantly, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Of course! Of course how we spend our days is how we live our lives. Without the “of course” the quotation may not have struck as it did; the “of course” pats us on the back and says, it’s okay, you knew this deep down, but it took a writer to bring it to the surface; don’t take it personally that you’d forgotten about it all these years. Dillard wrote this line in her book The Writing Life, which is a reflection on writers and writing, and which seems the only appropriate place for a line like that to be written.

Of all the people I’ve met, writers seem to be those who daily live the idea. Pico Iyer has embodied the idea for me; he need not say the words, for how he structures his days all points to that larger knowledge that it is these parts that determine the whole.

To structure a life at the outset is an impossible task. I was once in North Carolina on a cycling trip with the Yale Cycling Team, and we were to scale Mt Mitchell, the “highest peak east of the Mississippi”. From our small cabin we could see the mountain stretching upwards interminably, the peak, however, always obscured in a misty cloud. One’s mind could not at once comprehend climbing the entire mountain; once we began, it was only possible by breaking the hours-long climb into each visible stretch of road. I only needed to make it to the next bend in the road, beyond which I could not see, and once I made it there, I could make it to the next bend, and do this enough times and I’d reach the peak.

It is a pleasurable thought that for most of us, our lives are already broken into these neat, short stretches of road. We need only decide how to live today, and then decide tomorrow, and through these individual decisions we will live a life. It reduces the overwhelming. It breaks up lifelong commitments into daily reaffirmations, which seem certainly feasible.

And if, out of respect for Dillard’s masterstroke, even at risk of butchering it, I could offer a slight tweak to her formulation, to break those individual days down into even more manageable parts, it would be this: how we start our days is how we start our lives.

Focus on the start of each day. Get it right, do something you’re proud of in the first hour, and, slowly but surely, you’ll find life itself becomes something you’re proud of.

The Liberal Arts in Global Context

Liberal education today is in some quarters seen as being in decline; headlines almost daily question its value and predict its demise. It is increasingly passed over in favour of pre-professional or vocational degrees, and the rise of the glamorous Silicon Valley technology industry is encouraging undergraduates to specialise earlier. This, alongside the reality that the idea of the liberal arts college has hardly existed outside of the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and one could be forgiven for assuming liberal education’s days are numbered.

And yet, simultaneously, liberal education is expanding globally. Yale-NUS College is perhaps the flagship of this expansion, but across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Oceania, liberal arts programs and colleges are increasing in number. Liberal education is seen as an antidote to overly rigid career and workforce structures, and a way of claiming back personality and individual meaning in cultures that demand conformity. In these circles, liberal education is to experience not decline but a surge in both interest and enrolment.

These views cannot both be right. But how should we understand liberal education amidst the two narratives? What has liberal education been, what is it today, and what should we expect it to be in future? Can we expect it to expand globally, or will such an expansion be to lose the essence of the liberal arts? How should we think about Yale-NUS College in terms of these larger trends in liberal education, and what lessons can we draw for the further expansion of liberal education into other countries and contexts? And perhaps above all, how will these different facets of liberal education affect its original political purpose of educating informed, actively engaged and critical citizens?

I’m to attempt to answer some of these questions over the next year as part of my senior thesis project at Yale-NUS. For a while I deliberated over the topic that I should focus on for the next year; and thought there were many others, and one in particular which spoke to a question I had around how small states function in the world, these questions on the liberal arts spoke much more meaningfully to my education as a whole and an interest that I’ve never particularly done anything to cultivate.

My own experience with the liberal arts has been struggling to understand what the term even meant, coming from a country where there is no such educational tradition. But I now believe liberal education is a component of personal growth not to be passed up; I feel I understand the opportunity a liberal education offers on a deeper level, and yet do not know how to make sense of this in terms of the liberal arts tradition globally. And, especially pertinent to a New Zealander studying at a liberal arts college in Singapore, I wonder whether the liberal education I’ve received is a result of studying at an American-styled institution with predominantly American professors. Is the idea unique to America today? Can it ever truly be spread globally? Or can it only spread by maintaining the people and structures present at liberal arts colleges in the United States?

I anticipate writing with increasing frequency on the liberal arts here on this blog. My blog has always been a space to hone my own thinking on topics, and to hear from readers about what books I should be reading next or who I should be talking to. So please, if you do have thoughts, get in touch.

Money Costs

Time may be money… though I’ve always resisted that loath­some platitude, the alchemy by which the very gold of our lives is transformed into the base lead of commerce…

— Mark Slouka, Quitting the Paint Factory

In economics we are taught that everything money could be spent on has an opportunity cost, which is the next best thing that you could have purchased with the same money.

Money, too, has an opportunity cost.

Most obviously its opportunity cost is what one could have done with the time one spent to earn that money (see—spent to earn… the analogy is inescapable). What Mark Slouka does in the quotation above is show us that sometimes, comparisons do an injustice. To say that time is money is to think that they are on the same ground, that it is a choice of either/or.

But money can buy everything in the world aside from time. The richest person in the world can do nothing to slow ageing, to stop days passing.

“Time is money”; we grow up with that innocuous statement without realising the harm it causes, how we debase the only thing we really have, and the only thing that money can never buy.