On Making Decisions Despite the Instability of Our Future Selves

Every so often a certain theme or idea can continue to pop up seemingly everywhere in life. It’s as if by thinking about something once we are primed to find it everywhere, and without looking or trying we will be bombarded with many riffs on the same theme for the next month or so. This has happened to me a great deal recently, especially with the idea that there is a logical flaw in how we construct our lives from our present state, allowing ourselves very little room for personal growth and change.

A while ago I wrote about how we are incentivised in daily life “to connect our dots looking forward, to extrapolate our pasts into our futures as if we were unchanging.” I was reflecting there on the fallacies inherent in career thinking, where we are encouraged to plan our entire lives from where we are now. But learning and growing as individuals is precisely the point of our education—were we to come out of university the same person as we began, it seems difficult to see how one was in fact educated. I was questioning why we think about our life’s trajectory as linear, instead of the likely reality that, as Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots of your life looking backwards—and there may, in the end, be no pattern at all.

I also quoted elsewhere a Wall Street Journal article on how experiences studying abroad can change and shape us. There, the authors stated that

“Concrete, defined plans for life are abstract because they are made for a self who is abstract: a future self that you imagine based on a snapshot of yourself now. You are confined to what is in the best interests of the person you happen to be right now—not of the person you will become.”

This was a tangential point to the main one being made in the article, and yet today it is really all I can remember from it. It might be, to some, a truism; and yet for others it might be a statement of fact so blindingly obvious that it had never even been considered.

Today I came across yet another riff on this idea, a different way of putting it that draws out different components. Psychologist Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness is essentially a whole book related in one way or another to this idea, yet Maria Popova of Brainpickings had captured (as she always manages to do) the central few paragraphs. I want to quote two of these paragraphs in full, as I think they leave a lot to think about, especially for those of us currently being encouraged from all angles to make precisely the mistake that is being warned against.

“The things we do when we expect our lives to continue are naturally and properly different than the things we might do if we expected them to end abruptly… We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements on a putting green, jogging and flossing with some regularity so they can avoid coronaries and gum grafts, enduring dirty diapers and mind-numbing repetitions of The Cat in the Hat so that someday they will have fat-cheeked grandchildren to bounce on their laps. Even plunking down a dollar at the convenience store is an act of charity intended to ensure that the person we are about to become will enjoy the Twinkie we are paying for now. In fact, just about any time we want something — a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger — we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us, honoring our sacrifices as they reap the harvest of our shrewd investment decisions and dietary forbearance.”

“But our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan. Even that person who takes a bite of the Twinkie we purchased a few minutes earlier may make a sour face and accuse us of having bought the wrong snack.”

These ideas are, at their core, talking about the problems with making commitments while young, when one’s self is still unstable. The obvious solution to the need to make decisions now for an unknown future is to delay making commitments to career or work until that self is more stable. But is it ever? And if it is, is that a good thing? Delaying commitments comes with downsides, too. In a class I took last semester with David Brooks we explored the advantages of making commitments while young—where everything can seemingly fall into place, and days are lived with a far greater sense of purpose. David explores these issues of making commitments in his latest book, The Road to Character, pushing strongly the idea that commitments should and must be made early. I wonder how to align this view of life with those views I’ve quoted above, where seeking meaning or making unalterable decisions when you are not yet your “self” seems imprudent.

My final paper for the class ended up being a meditation on Kazuo Ishiguro’s book The Remains of the Day, which raises all sorts of questions (again, another place the theme popped up) about whether and when we should make binding commitments to work or other areas of life in order to avoid wasting our days. My conclusion was, perhaps predictably, to say we need some sort of balance (in the words of a friend, “enlightened fence-sitting”). And that balance, I concluded, should lie in devoting ourselves to a number of things we love, and never solely one’s career.

That at least is the conclusion that my present self decided would be the one most satisfactory to my future self. I could be wrong (apologies, future Michael, if that it the case). But here’s the very point. Some decision must be made, even if that decision is inaction. And, ultimately, what this discussion is good for is in knowing what is actually at stake in these often quotidian-seeming decisions.

“War Minus the Shooting?”: The Olympics, International Sport, and Orwell on the Sporting Spirit

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

The Olympic Games are upon us. Which means, of course, that for a month or so countries will forget their rivalries, jealousies and bitterness and come together to compete in a friendly way to advance world peace and everlasting human health and happiness. Those colourful, shining, interlocking rings are the symbol of the games that will bind humans of all races, faiths, creeds and beliefs closer together through the sporting spirit. Just as in ancient Olympia the Olympics stood for brotherhood and love for one’s opponent, so too next month in Brazil will the world come to be a more peaceful, caring place.

If I came across as sarcastic, that was merely incidental. In 2013 I attended the opening ceremony for the next year’s Winter Olympics at Olympia, and I also visited the Olympics Academy right nearby, a few hundred metres from the ancient track and field. Those at the Academy, as well as those Olympic organisers who spoke before the torch was lit, all used language like I did above. The belief in this vision of the Olympics was real.

But clearly, when I write about what the Olympics is meant to achieve, we sense that something isn’t quite right. George Orwell was someone who saw right through the narrative that sports advance world peace. Following a visit by the USSR’s football team, Orwell was sufficiently frustrated (or perhaps shocked) to pen his thoughts on the ironies of the “sporting spirit”. His brief essay is a damning critique of international sports, presenting almost the opposite to the Olympic narrative, and stemming from belief that nationalism is an unnecessary and dangerous phenomenon.

“I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.”

“Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved, it is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused. Anyone who has played even in a school football match knows this. At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.”

He ends by speculating on where this “sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence” comes from, arguing it comes from changes in lifestyle.

“In a rustic community a boy or young man works off a good deal of his surplus energy by walking, swimming, snowballing, climbing trees, riding horses, and by various sports involving cruelty to animals, such as fishing, cock-fighting and ferreting for rats. In a big town one must indulge in group activities if one wants an outlet for one’s physical strength or for one’s sadistic impulses. Games are taken seriously in London and New York, and they were taken seriously in Rome and Byzantium: in the Middle Ages they were played, and probably played with much physical brutality, but they were not mixed up with politics nor a cause of group hatreds.”

There are times, which Orwell seems not to admit, when a sporting spirit comes through and gives credence to the narrative of sport as in some way advancing a notion of peace. But one reason I like Orwell’s essay, as extreme as it is, is for how it cuts through the rosy gloss we so frequently put on things. It can be all too easy to convince ourselves of a nice-sounding narrative, as we have done about the Olympics and international sport, when even brief thought and reflection could bring us closer to the reality.

That reality is probably somewhere between the Olympics narrative and Orwell’s. There are reasons beyond “group hatred” that explain why we continue to play international sport and contest the Olympics, and I think these reasons have much to do with showing that people are people. Sometimes one country wins, another time another does. In a single Olympics almost all countries will at points feel uplifted and proud, and then disappointed and embarrassed. Countries will swap roles in different events and at different points, and come to see that the range of human emotions are something common—even the bitterness and jealousies. People can come to feel closer even if that closeness comes through seeing their nations pushed apart by rivalry.

It was hard as a spectator, for instance, not to cry as five men of different nationalities crossed the finish line in tears, each for a different reason, in one of the final stages of this year’s Giro d’Italia. Some cried from disappointment, others from happiness, others from injury. They showed that whatever their nationalities, they were human—and they could be injured, overjoyed or dismayed just like anyone else. Cycling reporter Neal Rogers summed it up perfectly, I think, when he said that “Drama isn’t just sport. It’s humanity.”

Two open questions are whether some sports are more prone to being “war minus the shooting” than others, as well as whether these views of sport have changed over the period since Orwell wrote. Clearly some sports, the more physical, seem more inclined to produce violence and negative feelings. But witness the barely-concealed bitterness and open disgust between the American and New Zealand sailing teams following the last America’s Cup—a relatively tame sport if there is such a thing—and even that narrative is complicated.

Let us hope for Orwell to be proven wrong entirely, but it in anticipation of the Olympics it is probably best to escape, to a degree, the fuzzy narrative of world peace that will inevitably be propagated.

The Drama and Humanity of Sport: On Stage 19 of the 2016 Giro d’Italia

“To clarify, drama isn’t just sport. It’s humanity. At least 4 in the top 10 on GC were in tears today. That’s drama.”

— Cycling journalist Neal Rogers on Stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia.

Stage 19 of this year’s Giro d’Italia was when it all blew apart. Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk had been in the maglia rosa, the pink leader’s jersey, for the best part of the week, and had been looking unbeatable. He looked in control, cool and calm, and with a three minute lead over his nearest rival, it was said that “only a crash or major mishap” would keep him from winning the Giro.

Alack, Murphy’s law. The riders crested the first major climb of the day, the Colle dell’Agnello, in heavy mist, entering France from Italy. And then, a major crash and mishap. Kruijswijk misjudged his speed, entered a corner too fast, had his balance wrong, and couldn’t recover. He crashed hard into a bank of ice, flipping over his handlebars and landing heavily. He immediately leapt up, and put his hand to his helmet in disbelief. For the first time in the entire Giro, Kruijswijk looked anything but calm and collected, which was unsurprising after what was a very heavy fall. He struggled to straighten his bike and put his chain back on, eventually managing but having to stop again a few yards later as something was still clearly wrong with the bike. His rivals all passed him and accelerated to build a lead. By the end of the day, Kruijswijk would cross the finish line almost five minutes after his nearest rival on the general classification, losing what had seemed a practically secured maglia rosa.

Was it fair that his rivals took advantage of a crash? Social media was divided on this very point. The consensus seemed to be that this was not so much misfortune as misjudgement. Descending is a part of cycling, a skill like those that had put Kruijswijk in the pink jersey in the first place, and he was found wanting. That’s what bike racing is all about.

Esteban Chaves cried as he crossed the finish line knowing he would wear the pink jersey the next day. Vincenzo Nibali cried as he crossed the line, winning the stage after a few tough days of poor performance. Alejandro Valverde was disappointed as he fell off the podium positions after losing so much time to Nibali. And Ilnur Zakarin, who had been performing wonderfully during the Giro, ended the day in hospital after a brutal crash on a descent.

Such was the drama of a single day’s cycling of a 21-stage grand tour.

Neal Rogers’ tweet above perfectly captured the day. It captured why fans had cried, too, seeing an injured, shaken, embarrassed and oh-so-disappointed Kruijswijk cross the line. He had to ride past thousands of fans on the rest of the day’s stage. There was no hiding for him, and he had to face both Esteban Chaves, the new holder of the maglia rosa after the stage, as well as Vincenzo Nibali, the stage winner and ultimately the Giro winner. Raw emotion all around. These may be incredible athletes, but they have emotions just like anyone else.

That’s why sport grips the imagination in a way that movies seem these days not to. We know the ending of a movie before its done; they are so formulaic and scripted by Hollywood and other industries. In sport, it isn’t over until it’s over. Tears are real, as are the full range of human emotions in a single day—pride and excitement to begin, embarrassment and disappointment to end.

All this, playing out on some of the most beautiful and poignant mountains in the world. The contrast between the beauty and permanence of the landscapes next to the suffering of humans trying to overcome them is what makes this sport a symbol of humanity. It is drama, but in that drama is some central element of being human.

Robert Louis Stevenson on Escaping the Cult of Busy and the Joys of Doing Nothing

Apology for IdlersI wrote recently of my experience learning how to do nothing. The essay came out of my experiences after being involved in a high-speed crash during a bicycle race, and receiving a concussion. For the next two weeks the doctor’s orders were to have cognitive rest, to literally do nothing—no reading, no phone, no computer, no intense conversations.

What I should have done during that period, however, was have someone read to me Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay An Apology for Idlers.

While writing my own essay, I struggled with how to refer to “doing nothing”. I ended up referring to it as both doing nothing nothing—to be differentiated from doing nothing singular, which is lying on a couch scrolling through Instagram—as well as daydreaming.

Stevenson, on the other hand, is writing about doing nothing singular. And through doing so, he discusses how to escape the cult of busy—which is not so new a phenomenon after all—as well as why we should all take time to be idle. He touches also on the purpose of education and how it can come about as much through idleness as through books and classes, as well as the traps of living your life in pursuit of others peoples’ measures of success.

“Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself.”

He is careful to point out that doing nothing is not always preferable to doing something; but his task is to point out its advantages at certain times.

“The greatest difficulty with most subjects is to do them well; therefore, please to remember this is an apology. It is certain that much may be judiciously argued in favour of diligence; only there is something to be said against it, and that is what, on the present occasion, I have to say. To state one argument is not necessarily to be eat to all others, and that a man has written a book of travels in Montenegro, is no reason why he should never have been to Richmond.”

We so often think of reading a book as doing nothing and relaxing, but Stevenson complicates this idea. His version of doing nothing requires escaping altogether the notion of productivity, including consuming knowledge. This is one answer to the conversation I had with a good friend about whether we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it.

“Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life. It seems a pity to sit, like the Lady of Shallot, peering into a mirror, with your back turned on all the bust and glamour of reality. And if a man reads very hard, as the old anecdote reminds us, he will have little time for thought.”

Idleness—those “vivid, instructive hours of truantry”—is the best education we can get. In an echo of the character Will Ladislaw in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which was published just four or so years before his essay), Stevenson hilariously enlists Mr. Worldly Wiseman accosting a young truant to illustrate the point:

“”Hey now, young fellow, what dost thou here?”

“Truly, sir, I take mine ease.”

“Is not this the hour of the class? and should’st thou not be plying thy Book with diligence, to the end thou mayest obtain knowledge?

“Nay, but thus also I follow after Learning, by your leave.”

“Learning, quotha! After what fashion, I pray thee? Is it mathematics?”

“No, to be sure.”

“Is it metaphysics?”

“Nor that.”

“Is it some language?”

“Nay, it is no language.”

“Is it a trade?”

“Nor a trade neither.”

“Why, then, what is’t?”

“Indeed, sir, as a time may soon come for me to go upon Pilgrimage, I am desirous to note what is commonly done by persons in my case, where are the ugliest Sloughs and Thickets on the Road; as also, what manner of Staff is of the best service. Moreover, I lie here, by this water, to learn by root-of-heart a lesson which my master teaches me to call Peace, or Contentment.”

Idleness, in itself, can be a vital education in the “art of living”:

“Many who have ‘plied their book diligently’, and know all about some one branch or another of accepted lore, come out of the study with an ancient and owl-like demeanour, and prove dry, stockist, and dyspeptic in all the better and brighter parts of life. Many make a larger fortune, who remain underbred and pathetically stupid to the last. And meantime there goes the idler, who began life along with them—by your leave, a different picture. He has had time to take care of his health and his spirits; he has been a great deal in the open air, which is the most salutary of all things for both body and mind; and if he has never read the great Book in very recondite places, he has dipped into it and skimmed it over to excellent purpose. Might not the student afford some Hebrew roots, and the business man some of his half-crowns, for a share of the idler’s knowledge of life at large, and Art of Living?”

Stevenson wrote this essay in 1876. He discusses exactly the “cult of busy” that so many, the New York Times included, have taken to be a modern phenomenon, and explains how idleness is a way out of the trap. This is perhaps his most important passage of the essay, dealing really with how people choose to live their lives.

“Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation. Bring these fellows into the country, or set them aboard ship, and you will see how they pine for their desks or their study. They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still.

Stevenson warns all students of the dangers of filling your life with so much busyness that you cannot focus on what is really important. He explains how conventional success is determined in society, and why students should be sceptical of that image.

These people “Have been to school and college, but all the time they had their eye on the medal; they have gone about in the world and mixed with clever people, but all the time they were thinking of their own affairs. As if a man’s soul were not too small to begin with, they have dwarfed and narrowed theirs by a life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material of amusement, and not one thought to rub against another, while they wait for the train… This does not appeal to me as being Success in Life.”

Stevenson ends with a warning to all who are young on what they might be giving up by pursuing a single measure of success through continual hard work, books and study. In practical terms, this is a comparison of different education systems—those that focus on work twelve or more hours a day, versus those that focus on life and practical skills—as well as a plea for taking time off to discover your own standards of success.

“The ends for which they give away their priceless youth, for all they know, may be chimerical or hurtful; the glory and riches they expect may never come, or may find them indifferent; and they and the world they inhabit are so inconsiderable that the mind freezes at the thought.”

Stevenson’s essay is an important one to read to see through the day-to-day traps and vanities of work and productivity. It is an extreme view, but Stevenson himself admits that; his purpose was not to persuade anyone of complete idleness, but to present the other side of the story that young people are so rarely told. His ideal is a middle way between productivity and idleness—and in that way, we would be able to ensure that our productive time is spent on activities whose ends we actually want to be pursuing.

 

Thanks to my friend Tamara for recommending the collection of Stevenson’s essays.

What Is College For?: David Foster Wallace on Liberal Education and the Trenches of Adult Life

“This is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”

“I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

— David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water” commencement address at Kenyon College. May 21, 2005.

One of the questions faced these days by anyone giving a commencement address is whether to speak to the graduating seniors in the crowd before you, or whether to speak to the potential millions on YouTube. Many of these potential listeners in all parts of the world may be younger, perhaps just starting college, and your speech could come at just the right time to nudge their life in a slightly different direction—to make them conscious of their education, conscious of something important.

David Foster Wallace tried to speak to both at once. He spoke, to the graduating seniors before him, of the “the day to day trenches of adult existence” they were about to encounter. But he also spoke of the education they had just completed—the education they could not re-do, but could only try to make some sense of. This latter part of his speech is most important to those about to enter college. It is an ideal high school commencement address.

This is one of the paradoxes of Wallace’s commencement address. To have listened to his speech as a graduating senior, and to be told, perhaps for the first time, what my education was really about, would have struck me with a debilitating frustration. To go back and read those books again, and to have all those conversations again, with the knowledge that this all dealt with the most central aspect of existence might’ve put many of those seniors on very different life paths. But here they were being told about the “trenches” of existence, and what “day in day out” really means, perhaps without having ever realised what those four years at college had been for, how they could have limited the time they might spend in those trenches.

I was lucky enough to have been sent Wallace’s speech before entering college—and it was also sent to all students by Yale-NUS College’s Dean of Students the day before classes began in freshman year. This is how Wallace spoke to far more than those seated before him. And for all these people, the millions who listen to his speech online, understanding the meaning of their liberal education before entering college might have some immense effect.

It’s like in those sci-fi stories about an asteroid heading straight towards Earth, threatening human existence. Nudge the asteroid by even half a millimetre early enough (using a missile or something), and it will comfortably miss Earth. But leave it too late, until the asteroid is far closer to Earth, and the force required to knock it off its course might just be too great to be possible.

That’s the time value of experience. That’s also the power of writing and of speaking.

I didn’t properly grasp Wallace’s This is Water speech when I first read it, nor when I was sent it in freshman year. In fact, I’m sure I don’t grasp much of it even now. But from the start it gave me the sense that my education was about something larger. I felt then that it was about more than just a job and a career. It was this sense that let me push back when I was incentivised to connect my dots looking forward, and it has led to a fundamentally different college experience. As Wallace said, it has also let me learn how to give meaning to experiences.

The speech has also provided a reference point with which to understand my education. Each time I read it, I understand a little bit more of what Wallace was trying to get at. And I have no doubt that same will continue to happen for much of my adult life.

The Time Value of Experience

Note: I wrote this in mid 2011, when I was still 16 and in my penultimate year of high school. I might re-write it someday, but I feel the idea is important enough to make it worthwhile re-posting the original. The project I mention at the end, “They Don’t Teach You This In School”, was about creating an archive of life lessons and experiences through one minute videos asking people the question, “What’s one thing they didn’t teach you in school that you wish you had known when you were younger?”

You’ve no doubt heard of the Time Value of Money, a theory that explains how the value of a dollar in your pocket today is more than the value of that dollar if you receive it tomorrow. If you own that dollar right now, you have the opportunity to receive interest on it before tomorrow, which means that the dollar is more valuable to you by the amount of the interest that you receive before tomorrow (and tomorrow can represent any date in the future).

The Time Value of Money theory is the basis of fundamental finance and economics. It explains the core reasoning behind why people act rationally with regard to money and how people make investment decisions. There is no arguing with the importance of this theory in our society.

I propose that there is another theory which is arguably more important than the Time Value of Money. It’s a theory that is relatively obvious, but often forgotten. The theory explains the core reasoning behind how we act, and how we make decisions in life. And because it encompasses much more than money, it’s something that people should be made aware of, so that they don’t forget it.

Let’s call it the Time Value of Experience. It describes how experiences we have are more valuable the earlier that we have them, because those experiences can then be applied to all other parts of our lives in the future. It’s about knowledge and lessons that we’ve learned – so perhaps those terms are interchangeable.

If I make a mistake today – let’s say I screw up a negotiation with someone, or make a bad decision – then the lessons that I’ve learned through this experience are valuable, as they help me to avoid making similar mistakes in the future when perhaps the stakes are higher. By making these mistakes today, that experience is more valuable than if I made the mistake tomorrow because I’ve had a day with which to apply that experience to my life. Later that day, I may have avoided making a similar mistake because I already made the mistake earlier that day.

Therefore, experiences that I have today are more valuable than that same experience tomorrow by the difference of mistakes that I would’ve made before tomorrow if I hadn’t gained that experience today.

Obviously, the Time Value of Experience is not as easy to measure as the Time Value of Money. It’s intangible, and non-numerical. But by being aware of this theory, we can attempt to gain as many experiences as we can, as soon as possible.

This theory explains why many entrepreneurs love making mistakes, and look upon mistakes as a huge achievement. By screwing up, you’ve successfully gained experience and knowledge which you can apply to everything you try in the future.

The Time Value of Experience also helps me to explain the importance and value of my project They Don’t Teach You This In School. If people can pass on their knowledge and experiences through TDTYTIS, then young people can learn from that right now and benefit from it into the future. On the other hand, if the only way for someone to learn something is through personal experience, then society is slowed down because everyone is making mistakes that could be avoided.

I believe everyone should bear in mind the Time Value of Experience. You should try do gain as much experience as you can in whatever it is you do every single day, because that experience is more valuable the sooner you gain it.

On Excellent Sheep: What is College for?

ExI read Bill Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep (subtitled The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life) at the beginning of the year, over a period of a few days before starting second semester of my junior year at college.  I had bought the book at Politics & Prose in D.C. and, perhaps appropriately, finished it moments before the Amtrak I was on pulled into New Haven—as if, now armed with an extreme scepticism of all I was about to encounter, I was ready for the next semester.

Deresiewicz was formerly a professor at Yale until he left to write, which (rightly or wrongly) comes across as a decision to practice much of what his book preaches. Purportedly focussing by its title on elite, liberal education, the latter part of the subtitle gives away the fact that Excellent Sheep is far more wide-ranging, and comes closer to being no less than a manifesto on humanity today—“Society is a conspiracy to keep itself from the truth” and similar comments are tucked away mid-paragraph throughout. The book deals in turn with four “characters”: Sheep, Self, Schools and Society.

Deresiewicz has a wonderful and all-too-rare skill for capturing and putting into words the inner fears, thoughts and questions that so many people try to dismiss as quickly as possible. By forcing many permutations of these fears onto the page, he speaks to the various ways that each of us formulates these doubts and concerns.

“One of the saddest things for me in all of this is listening to kids in high school, or those who’ve just arrived at college, express their hopes for their undergraduate experience and knowing how likely they are to be disappointed. For despite it all, the romance of college remains: the dream, as Bloom puts it, of having an adventure with yourself. Beneath the cynicism that students feel they are forced to adopt, beneath their pose of placid competence, the longings of youth remain. There is an intense hunger among today’s students… for what college ought to be providing but is not: for a larger sense of purpose and direction; for an experience at school that speaks to them as human beings, not bundles of aptitudes; for guidance in addressing the important questions of life; for simple permission to think about these things and a vocabulary with which to do so.”

At another point, speaking of what one gives up by pursuing higher education, Deresiewicz draws attention to how college also closes down opportunities as well as opening them. This is a side to education rarely spoken of.

“What then, finally, is it all for? Our glittering system of elite higher education: students kill themselves getting into it, parents kill themselves to pay for it, and always for the opportunities it opens up. But what of all the opportunities it closes down—not for any practical reason, but just because of how it smothers you with expectations? How can I become a teacher, or a minister, or a carpenter? Wouldn’t that be a waste of my fancy education? What would my parents think? What would my friends think? How would I face my classmates at our twentieth reunion, when they’re all rich doctors or important people in New York? And the question that exists behind them all: isn’t it beneath me? So an entire world of possibilities shuts, and you miss your true calling.”

This question of “What is university for?” is a thread throughout the book, one that cannot be answered in a single paragraph—it bears, in this sense, an uncanny resemblance to the question “What is modernity?” that college students may be all too familiar with. The book itself is Deresiewicz’s answer, and he takes a stab at answering the question directly at numerous points, in addition to the paragraph I quoted above.

“Why college? College, after all, as those who like to denigrate it often say, is “not the real world.” But that is precisely its strength. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance. It offers students “the precious chance”, as Andrew Delbanco has put it, “to think and reflect before life engulfs them.”

“Practical utility, however, is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education. Its ultimate purpose is to help you learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.”

“College helps to furnish the tools with which to undertake the work of self-discovery… The job of college is to assist you, or force you, to start on your way through the vale of soul-making.”

But I find Deresiewicz’s most poignant answer in a separate article, where he discusses college’s purpose directly in terms of the advent of modernity (thereby answering college students’ two most persistent questions in one deft move):

“Modernity is a condition of ever-increasing acceleration, but only, until recently, for adults. For the young, modernity means — or meant — something different. The modern age, in fact, invented the notion of youth as an interval between childhood and adulthood, and it invented it as a time of unique privileges and obligations. From the Romantics, at the dawn of modernity, all the way through the 1970s, youth was understood to have a special role: to step outside the world and question it. To change it, with whatever opposition from adults. (Hence the association of youth and revolution, another modern institution.) As college became common as a stage of life — one that coincides with the beginning of youth — it naturally incorporated that idea. It was the time to think about the world as it existed, and the world that you wanted to make.

But we no longer have youth as it was imagined by modernity. Now we have youth as it was imagined by postmodernity — in other words, by neoliberalism. Students rarely get the chance to question and reflect anymore — not about their own lives, and certainly not about the world.”

Deresiewicz often seems unsure about who to blame for our education system’s failure to live up to the promise of the liberal arts. Much of the book is directed against universities (and by implication their administrators, as in a whole chapter on “The Institutions”), as are his articles (like The Neoliberal Arts, from which the above quotation was taken from). And yet he quotes Ross Douthat, who talks about how Harvard “remains one of the best places on earth to educate oneself”, but how “it will not actively educate you, will not guide or shape or even push back in any significant way.” These are two separate approaches to living up to the liberal arts, Deresiewicz’s being institution-focussed and Douthat’s, individual-focussed.

I wondered whether, even if universities entirely adjusted their missions back to an ideal liberal arts-style education as Deresiewicz seems to want, students would reject this wholesale. An education of the kind that Deresiewicz describes, “a self inflicted wound”, as he quotes Lewis Lapham, must be exactly that. Self-inflicted. There is, besides, no such thing as an inflicted education, since it seems impossible to educate someone against their will. I think the promise of liberal education depends entirely on individual students, so long as universities have the right tools for students to use.

My college experience has been transformative, and the longer I am at college the more I learn how to educate myself. Each semester I learn how to better grab at the opportunities I have, to use books to give meaning to my experiences, to discuss what I read with professors who can tell me what book should then come next.

On the one hand, Excellent Sheep grabbed my shoulders and shook them, as only books that describe deep and unspoken experiences are able to. I saw all-too-clearly the miseducation that Deresiewicz describes, the need for “something more” in education, the waste of minds that happens so frequently. But on the other hand, I realised that what was also grabbing me as I read was how my college education matches, to a surprising extent, the education that Deresiewicz’ idealises and spends much of the book lamenting the death of.

Deresiewicz seems to me trapped by his age and position: he feels he can write most directly to American “adults” (non-students) and the university administrators he worked with for so long, but realises that the people who have most to gain are current and future college students themselves. This is visible in his continual switching between third-person (“Do students ever hear this?”, he laments seemingly to politicians who solely speak of STEM subjects) and second-person (“Once you get there, keep your eye on the ball. You can’t just passively absorb an education.”) And Deresiewicz cannot be blamed for this. On the contrary, it is a great gift to raise these questions so succinctly and so poignantly, no matter who the questions are directed to.

But these questions I had while reading Excellent Sheep left me feeling that colleges are not particularly to blame. Sure, I would like it if there were more of an overt institutional focus on the humanities and on the classical tradition of the liberal arts. My own experiences leading up to college and during it make me inclined to agree with Deresiewicz on all this. But even were that done, it might not do anything for students themselves. What is needed instead, it seems to me, is a new generation of college-aged champions of the liberal arts to inspire other students to grab hold of the education we already have at our fingertips. We need students to start changing the prevailing narrative away from education-as-a-way-to-a-job, and towards education-as-a-way-to-a-meaningful-life. We need to escape all the subtle aspects of the existing narrative, like how university rankings are often done based on average graduate earnings, and have people show in actions even more than words how we can live our time at college focussed on a far greater purpose.

And make no mistake: that greater purpose is life itself, as Deresiewicz shows so well in this book. Yet college seems so often understood solely as the way to a prestigious career. Champions of the liberal arts will be those people who show us how college itself deals with life, with our lives, and who therefore show us how these four years can be grasped and not squandered on just a part of the whole.

Deresiewicz’s immense contribution may be as the person who gave rise to these new champions, these standard-bearers who will make the liberal arts cool again. And that is, essentially, what this is all about: understanding, as students, the true worth of four years to transform our lives.