David Brooks: It’s not about you

2 June 2011

My oldest niece is graduating from high school. She thinks it’s a big deal, but the adults in the family know how much bigger it is than she thinks. Wonderful times are in store for her, and tough times; eye-opening discoveries and hard lessons. I remember how confident I was at her age and marvel now at how little I really knew.

David Brooks wrote an insightful essay about the challenges and opportunities of today’s graduates in the New York Times a couple of days ago. Brooks talks about how graduates think they will find themselves in life, when in reality life comes to find them. I don’t think too many graduates read it as published, but I thought you might want to forward it to parents or graduates you know.

Brooks points out that today’s kids have been ever-more sheltered:

This year’s graduates are members of the most supervised generation in American history. Through their childhoods and teenage years, they have been monitored, tutored, coached and honed to an unprecedented degree.

Yet upon graduation they will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured. Most of them will not quickly get married, buy a home and have kids, as previous generations did. Instead, they will confront amazingly diverse job markets, social landscapes and lifestyle niches. Most will spend a decade wandering from job to job and clique to clique, searching for a role.

No one would design a system of extreme supervision to prepare people for a decade of extreme openness. But this is exactly what has emerged in modern America. College students are raised in an environment that demands one set of navigational skills, and they are then cast out into a different environment requiring a different set of skills, which they have to figure out on their own.

And that Americans’ philosophy of individualism is not necessarily the path to a fulfilling life:

College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments – to a spouse, a community and calling – yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.

Today’s graduates are also told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go off and live their quest. But, of course, very few people at age 22 or 24 can take an inward journey and come out having discovered a developed self.

Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.

Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.

In other words: Get out of your head and into the world. Needs are all around. Make yourself useful, and by being useful you will find meaning in life. Meaning doesn’t come from thinking; it comes from doing, helping, loving, serving.

The full essay is worth reading – solid brain food for young adults embarking on new adventures and the parents who hope to equip them properly for the journey.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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