Monday, June 15, 2009

Reason #53: Sound Advice

I received emails this morning stating "hello - what happened to your blog posts" and "I hope you have just been busy at work and have not reached your limit of 52 reasons to live well." Apparently, life has got in the way, and Ive been neglecting my blog. In the past two weeks, I have had numerous exciting events (a golf and tennis outing, JP Morgan Chase Corporate Challenge, a surprise birthday party), and a lot of not so exciting events (work deadlines galore). All the events, both good and bad, have put my blog on the backburner. I had all intentions on writing a post about the dangers of "high fructose corn syrup", but considering 50% of my diet this week has contained delicious birthday cake and Crumbs cupcakes, I did not think it was the appropriate time.

However, I recently read an article in the NY Times that has stuck in my mind. I have read the article a few times over, sent it to friends, and I wanted to share it further. The article is "Advice for High School Graduates" and is a written blog conversation between two NY Times columnists.

David Brooks: Gail, 30 years ago this week, I graduated from Radnor High School in Pennsylvania. Today, I’m giving some remarks to the students of this year’s graduating class.
This honor has sparked a condition that is unacceptable to people in our profession: writer’s block. I have been trying to think of some wisdom I have acquired over the past three decades, and I’m drawing a blank.

I used to believe life got better as you got older, but now I realize this is untrue. I could mention to them that high school mediocrity is no impediment to leading a happy life. I was an extraordinarily mediocre student. I did not graduate in the top third of my high school class. I submitted nine pieces to my high school literary magazine during the course of my years there and they were all rightly rejected. But I don’t think this message would go over well with the current faculty, or with the younger brothers and sisters in the audience — or at least their parents.

At the moment, I’m thinking of talking about the chief way our society is messed up. That is to say, it is structured to distract people from the decisions that have a huge impact on happiness in order to focus attention on the decisions that have a marginal impact on happiness.

The most important decision any of us make is who we marry. Yet there are no courses on how to choose a spouse. There’s no graduate department in spouse selection studies. Institutions of higher learning devote more resources to semiotics than love.

The most important talent any person can possess is the ability to make and keep friends. And yet here too there is no curriculum for this.

The most important skill a person can possess is the ability to control one’s impulses. Here too, we’re pretty much on our own.

What young people really need is a lesson in how to choose a spouse and how to make and keep friends.

These are all things with a provable relationship to human happiness. Instead, society is busy preparing us for all the decisions that have a marginal effect on human happiness. There are guidance offices to help people in the monumental task of selecting a college. There are business schools offering lavish career placement services. There is a vast media apparatus offering minute advice on how to furnish your home or expand your deck.

To get information on private affairs, you have to go down-market to Oprah or Dr. Phil. Why are they the ones who have access to information on meeting life’s vital needs? I think I know why this situation came about. Men. Because of our habitual flight from intimacy, we men have spent thousands of years structuring elite public discourse so more attention is paid to the World Trade Organization than the parts of life that really matter.

People like me are the problem. I should not be allowed to talk to young people on any momentous occasion. Therefore, I throw myself at your feet seeking wisdom I can share.

Gail Collins: David, we are coming at this discussion from opposite perspectives, since I went to a high school that was run by nuns. I did not feel the least bit shortchanged when it came to instruction about impulse control. Really, we often went for weeks without talking about anything else.

I know you want your audience to come away inspired and optimistic. (Also, not part of my high school experience. Our speakers were given to saying things like: “One of you here will be the first to die. Just think about that.”) So although I would personally love to have you acknowledge that the world has gone totally awry because men set the curriculum, I’m going to graciously let that one pass.

Do me a favor, assure the graduates that there’s good education to be had in a multitude of places, many far from the Ivy League.

Any school that produced David Brooks has got to be doing something right. And I think you’ve misinterpreted the story of your high school mediocrity. Especially the part about submitting nine rejected stories to the literary magazine. Wouldn’t most kids have quit after one or two? If there was any faculty member keeping an eye on you, I bet she said to herself: “David is impervious to discouragement. He will either become a great writer or a compulsive gambler.”
But do you think you could assure the graduates that there’s good education to be had in a multitude of places, many far from the Ivy League? I’m really disturbed by having a Supreme Court made up entirely of people who went to Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Columbia. (O.K., John Paul Stevens went to Northwestern. This was so long ago that it’s possible he did it on the advice of Abraham Lincoln.)

Judging people by the college they went to is almost as bad as judging them by their family tree. It’s the dictatorship of the U.S. News & World Report ranking list.

It is true that the fancier your alma mater, the more famous people you will know when you’re 45. You, however, will not necessarily be one of those famous people yourself. You could very easily wind up being the deputy assistant to a person who graduated 40th in her class at Wichita Tech.

This obsession with picking the right college is the way people who could have gotten a scholarship to a state school find themselves graduating from Nifty University with $100,000 in student loans. Tell the students that the only two things certain as they move out into the world are that the future is unknowable and the loan payments unavoidable.
And don’t forget that reminder about sunscreen. More important than ever in this age of global warming.

Now that I turned 25 (today!) and have a quarter of a century of wisdom, my first piece of advice for high schoolers would be to not take yourself too seriously. Everything that is stressing you out will NOT matter in 5 year let alone 15. I remember deadlines, projects, papers, and soccer games causing my stress levels to soar. The study abroad trips, the nights out with my friends, the Hurricane Katrina relief are far more memorable moments in college then my Business Management final exam. While I do not regret the hard work, I wish I had realized the miniscule impact it had on my life. Secondly, after reunions with my best friends from college and observations in the working world, I find that people desire different things. Some desire money, family, love, power, helping others, etc. The key seems to be figuring out what you really want, focus on passion over strengths, be conscious of the trade-offs you are making, and then to go for it with all your heart.

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