Wednesday, March 31, 2004

NYT columnist David Brooks' highly conventional advice to today's high school graduates looks harmless, as hackneyed adages are wont to do. Don't worry, he writes, about the things that seem important in high school:
Once you reach adulthood, the key to success will not be demonstrating teacher-pleasing competence across fields; it will be finding a few things you love, and then committing yourself passionately to them.

The traits you used getting good grades might actually hold you back. To get those high marks, while doing all the extracurricular activities colleges are also looking for....[y]ou could not allow yourself to be obsessed by one subject because if you did, your marks in the other subjects would suffer. You could not take outrageous risks because you might fail....You just knew that each class was a hoop you must jump through on your way to a first-class university. You learned to thrive in adult-supervised settings.....

But in adulthood, you'll find that a talent for regurgitating what superiors want to hear will take you only halfway up the ladder, and then you'll stop there. The people who succeed most spectacularly, on the other hand, often had low grades. They are not prudential. They venture out and thrive where there is no supervision, where there are no preset requirements.
Unfortunately, only highly successful people ever seem to be asked the secrets to success in life. And their answer is always the same: take risks, hold on to your dream, let nothing stand in your way, dare to be unconventional, etc., etc. Well, of course that's what they'd say, isn't it? If you interview a hundred lottery jackpot winners, at least ninety-nine of them will tell you the secret to success in life: play the lottery.

But it's entirely possible--indeed, I would say, it's highly likely--that the strategies that most often lead to spectacular success in life are, because of their associated risks, very poor choices for young people whose futures are not yet assured. If one were to ask thousands of moderately successful people the secret to their comfortable lives, on the other hand, I suspect their message would be the exact opposite of Brooks': work hard, whether you "love your work" or not; keep your passions from interfering with your duties and responsibilities, both at work and at home; respect, and learn from, your superiors; and choose safety and good sense over risk and dreams.

Granted, these principles may not get you an op-ed column in the New York Times. But they'll probably serve the average high school grad a lot better than Brooks' verbal lottery ticket.

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