Thursday, September 08, 2005

Paradigms for "Success"

A scene from the very start of the academic year:

A student comes into my office to talk about the courses she needs to take.

I have already given this student my usual speech about the intrinsic educational value of each of our distribution requirements. For this particular appointment, we don't have much time, because it is advising week and I have a lot of students to see. She's a little flustered because a course she had hoped to take conflicts in scheduling with another course she has to take. She wants advice on how to choose another course.

So, building from previous conversations (or so I hope), I take a shortcut: "What about this course that still has openings and would fulfill the Arts requirement?"

"Oh no," she replies. "I'm no good at art."

"Some other art, then?" I suggest. "You will have to fulfill this requirement some day! Fulfilling it will give you a chance to learn more about your creative self!" I add encouragingly. "What other art field then? Music? Theater? Dance?"

"No, I'm just not the creative type," she insists. "I know I have to do the requirement eventually, but, well, right now I'd rather do another math course or something."

In the press of time, I let it go. We do find a course that works for her. The next student comes in. And so it goes.

But now, weeks later, the conversation haunts me. Everyone is creative and likes to be playful! It is part of human nature to enjoy exploring, sharing, and being expressive in creative ways! So what painful experiences did this beautiful and stylish young woman have that made her think she was not good at art, not creative?

This was not an isolated story. Almost all of my advisees have their own "blocks" about something. Each has some list of subjects they are "not good at." They wait until a semester when the rest of their course schedule seems relatively unstressful before finally daring to tackle their "dreaded" distribution requirement.

I'm finally realizing that our culture has a very strange vision of "success." Our culture prizes specialization and professionalization so highly that most young people think that their task is to find the One Thing they are good at. To have to dabble in any others is usually a waste of time. Oh, they can explore a little while they are young -- but the real point of the exploration is to test whether they really are good enough to make this One Thing their career. You can have a couple of other interests, because it's good to have a "back up plan" in case it turns out that you don't "have what it takes" to succeed in your first choice.

And the standards for "having what it takes" are pretty high. You have to be really outstanding in your field. It's a competitive world out there, and the only ones who really get any respect are the record-breakers.

Of course, reality catches up to everyone eventually, and they are forced to modify their life plans. But, amazingly enough, they continue anyway to cling to this view of success -- it's just that now they regard themselves as less than successful, but console themselves by now transferring this vision of success to their children.

What if we could cultivate a different paradigm of success?

What if we first of all acknowledged that human beings are not mere cogs in the great machine of Economic Productivity, but are multi-dimensional, living, thinking, feeling, creative beings? We all observe, analyze, and construct theories, ever modifying them in light of new experiences (science). We read, write, think, try to figure out our place in the grand scheme of things, create new concepts and symbols, and reinterpret old ones (the humanities: literature, history, philosophy, religious studies). We notice visual and aural beauty; we delight in creative new ideas; we ever strive to express ourselves both effectively and eloquently, and even long to not only convince others, but to stir others, to move them (the arts). As whole human beings, we are all of this, and more!

What if our paradigm for the successful person were: a person who not only loves their job and does well at it (and the job addresses real needs in the world), but who also develops all aspects of the wholeness of their being?

What if we moved away from "Look at the Hero" version of "entertainment" we currently adopt, and into more participatory and relational ways of using our non-work time? What I mean is this: once you've given up on yourself as being creative, or smart, or athletic, what you now do for entertainment is Watch the Heroes do all of these things. You turn on the TV or stereo and watch others play sports, make witty jokes, discuss politics, perform ballet, etc. But what if, instead, we made our own sports? Performed our own music with and for each other? Earnestly tried to solve the world's problems in discussions with our friends and then wrote letters to the editor?

Of course there are people, many of them, who do live such well-balanced lives. Even so, that's not really the prevailing vision of what constitutes success. Too many people do sell themselves short: they stop exercising, stop playing music or drawing or acting in plays, etc., because they decide they are not really good enough. Only the "best" are truly "qualified" to do these things.

I like to think that the main purpose of liberal arts education is truly liberation from our culture's highly destructive paradigm of success. Our mission statements really do reflect amazing ideals. But our students don't really understand those statements, and, in their lack of comprehension, they regard it cynically as "fluff," or maybe, more generously, as "marketing." (Many of my students do have a grudging respect for "good marketing.") (Heavy, weary sigh!)

So, how can we communicate more effectively what we are trying to do, and convince the students that we really are serious about this?

Daily I am amazed at the ways the students willingly wear the chains that drag them down, and even fiercely defend their "right" to do so! They don't realize what they are saying. They don't realize what they are doing. They've worn these chains all their lives -- they would feel naked and unrooted without them. (Claiming freedom is very very scary because of the responsibility it entails.) So, it's understandable, really. It's not irrational.

It's just sad.


  1. 'So what painful experiences did this beautiful and stylish young woman have that made her think she was not good at art, not creative?'

    When I was four, my mother enrolled me in singing lessons, quite like a choir. After the first day, the teacher had talked to my mom abt my performance. 'Your daughter has a poor voice, it's too raspy, not clear enough, not good for singing.'

    From that day on, it haunts me. Whenever I open my mouth to sing in public, the wrong note came out. Or so I think. And so do most people. What happened? Am I really a bad singer? My aunt is a professional singer, a celebrity. And yet I can't sing. I wonder why.
    I am fine in other kinds of performance like giving speeches, reciting poetry, playing in dramas...
    But I just can't sing.
    And now, every time I look at a teacher, I wonder, has he or she, said or done anything, to destroy a child's mind?

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  3. That is such a sad story! People's voices do keep changing over time. You might want to consider "getting a second opinion" now, or trying for lessons again.

    It is too bad that teachers sometimes say things like this, perhaps not realizing the impact they are having. They probably think that they are doing people a favor, saving them grief down the road. Or they may think, "this is just my opinion, and I may be wrong," and not realize how seriously others take them.

    What I've learned through my own experience is that when someone says something discouraging to me, and I find that discouragement painful, I have to check in with myself in a deeper way. Is it just wounded pride, or do I feel hurt because this really matters to me? If it really matters to me, then I question whether I misunderstood the other person (and if I'm feeling really brave, I check with that person --on more than one occasion, it turned out that I did misunderstand them! They were not trying to be discouraging -- they were trying to help me improve!) Even if someone means to be discouraging, he or she might still simply be wrong.

    And if I determine that this is really important to me, I keep trying -- and that might include looking for someone who will be more supportive of my efforts.

    Much of what people dismiss as "lack of talent" is often just a lack of confidence in oneself, and confidence can be nurtured and cultivated.