Recently, the New Yorker published a really smart essay about the relentless stream of self-improvement books that washes over the non-fiction best-seller lists.
These advice-packed tomes mostly partake (as the essayist, Alexandra Schwartz, notes) of a cheery faith that some combination of willpower and technology-driven metrics will enable you to “do you” at some vaguely higher level.
It’s naive, self-centered individualism dressed up as tough-minded wisdom.
Schwartz concludes by talking about one book (from pinko Europe, of course) that critiques the self-improvement movement’s obsessive focus on, well, the self.
Stand Firm by Svend Brinkmann argues that maybe, just maybe, we ought to spend more time thinking about what we owe others and about how what we do affects the ability of the collectives to which we belong (family, workplace, society) to thrive or even survive. That might actually lead to a life lived with more purpose and meaning than can be achieved by the art of learning “not to give a fuck.”
Reading this brisk essay, I was reminded of a clichéd phrase that I’ve heard people proudly invoke so many times, in a tone that indicates it offers the most distilled essence of adult wisdom: “You can be anything you want to be, as long as you put your mind to it.”
This is terrible advice that has caused the children who received it – from parents, teachers or well-meaning aunts – no end of frustration and pain.
When I was a kid, what I wanted to be, more than anything in the world, was shortstop for the Cleveland Indians. Even if I had actually worked relentlessly to that goal, it never would have happened. I am a near-sighted, 5-foot-10 man of modest athletic ability and hand-eye coordination that sits firmly in the lumpy middle of the Bell curve.
I bear more resemblance to John Oliver than to Francisco Lindor, the Indians’ actual, sublime All-Star shortstop.
After that, I wanted to be the next great American novelist, the Catholic Philip Roth, Cleveland’s Saul Bellow.
That wasn’t happening, either. Even though my natural writing ability certainly exceeded my skill at going deep in the hole to field a grounder, it was still several standard deviations to the left of Mr. Roth and Mr. Bellow on the Bell curve of literary talent.
I thank God my parents did not relentlessly feed me that destructive pap about “you can be anything you want to.” Nor did they, bless them, seek to fill any holes or heal any hurts in their lives by pushing me to do what they would have liked to have done themselves.
Their message was: “Find something you love and do it as well as you can.”
So that’s what I did, buoyed by the pure dumb luck of stumbling into a first job in precisely the place where I was meant to be: a newspaper newsroom.
And that’s the message I tried to give my own children (on the rare occasions when they actually seemed to be listening to me).
“You can be anything you want to be” is bad advice even for favored sons and daughters of the middle class. This false standard — implying as it does that any failure to live out a childish dream speaks to a lack of effort or moral worth on the dreamer’s part — is probably a major culprit behind the epidemic of anxiety and depression among today’s children of privilege.
Even worse, this glib credo is brutally unfair to the children born into the wrong ZIP codes, the ones where America frankly doesn’t give a shit whether the schools stink, the streets ring with gunfire and the best-paying jobs on offer tend to lurk in the realm of the illegal.
How many smart, talented, delightful urban kids have been misled by the gospel of “you can be anything you want to be” into pursuing wasteful dreams of becoming the next LeBron or Jay-Z, when they should have focused their energies on becoming the next great teacher, urban planner, entrepreneur, doctor or caring cop that their community desperately needed?
Years ago, I wrote similar sentiments in a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, responding to a heart-breaking crime in Newark, N.J., where some good kids had been lined up against a wall and gunned down in gang-related violence.
A few weeks later, I was invited to talk to a forum of Temple University students. I asked: What do you want me to talk about?
That piece about being whatever you want, came the reply.
Really? I thought. Huh.
When the day came, the room was packed, students perched on windowsills. The discussion was impassioned, running way over time.
Looking back from today, with all the news reports on how so many college students are crippled by performance anxiety, I can see that those Temple students were giving me an early glimpse of a rising problem.
I was too dumb to grasp it then, but now I think I can.
And I’m moved to recommend: Curb the glib gospel of self-improvement (whose damage is compounded daily by social media’s incessant demand on users to maintain a glittering false front to the world). Don’t let this nonsensical advice damage any more of our kids.
Teach them to look outside of themselves (and their resumes) for meaning. To look towards service and community and friendship for a sense of purpose and a guiding light to the future.