People want space to develop their talents and identities. And that’s precisely what prevents them from doing so.
David Brooks once suggested that we are a “talent society,” more interested in self-development than conformity. Brooks suggests it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The part that really got me thinking was this:
But if there is one theme that weaves through all the different causes, it is this: The maximization of talent. People want more space to develop their own individual talents. They want more flexibility to explore their own interests and develop their own identities, lifestyles and capacities. They are more impatient with situations that they find stifling.
Many people have argued that these changes have led to a culture of atomization, loneliness and self-absorption. That’s overdrawn. In “Going Solo,” Klinenberg nicely shows that people who live alone are more likely to visit friends and join social groups. They are more likely to congregate in and create active, dynamic cities.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the notion that we flee “stifling situations” in the Quest for Me. Several recent posts on Humane Pursuits (and articles in other publications) have touched on related topics. All this great reading (which I’ll cite later) makes me want to dig deeper into Klinenberg’s suggestion.
Klinenberg assumes that visiting friends and joining a group or two means I’m not lonely or self-absorbed. Brooks makes the same assumption. But I wonder why we want that space to develop ourselves, and why we choose to reduce that personal space by having a social life. I think investigating this will reveal that there’s more going on than Klinenberg admits. The Quest for Me even affects how we do community, and not all for the better.
(1) Why are people more impatient with “stifling situations,” and what is the result?
It’s easy to characterize the way most twentysomethings today were raised using movies they watched as kids. In Disney’s Aladdin, we’re told Aladdin (despite being a thief and a pathological liar) is a “diamond in the rough” whose worth is “far within.” In other words, it’s not our choices that show who we are; it’s a mystical, unique Someone inside of us that we just have to find. Other movies explicitly discourage us from exploring our past or parentage in search of an identity, but to look inside. Even the WSJ’s article last week on why French parents are better than American ones shows that (whatever the faults of French parents, like, um, not having any kids) American kids tend to be raised from infancy with a much stronger sense that life revolves around them and that they can and should (as our Supreme Court once so eloquently put it) “define their own conception of existence.” This is the Quest for Me; finding ourselves and finding what we’re supposed to do with ourselves—and doing both without looking at much of anything outside ourselves.
As Brooks has shown elsewhere, this whole conception of reality is nonsense. ‘90s movies are insufferably consistent in hammering home a point that most of us were raised with; one that is metaphysical gibberish, supported by no decent philosophy, theology, science, or common sense. Here’s the funny thing, though—while Brooks is partially right in his description of who that mindset has turned us into, he’s missing the other side of the coin: the side where we really have no idea who we are. As Ezra Klein insightfully pointed out last week, our professional students (i.e. everyone who didn’t drop out of high school) hit senior year and discover to their horror that (a) they still haven’t “found their passion,” or at any rate haven’t found one that anyone will pay them to pursue, and (b) having spent all that time pursuing their interests rather than accepting “stifling situations” that would allow them to grow and develop skills, they’re not qualified to do anything, and have no idea how to navigate a job market that is exponentially less structured than anything they have yet faced. (So, as Klein points out, most of the smart ones go into finance, grad school, or Teach for America–obvious options that have fairly structured application processes.)
This leads to a second question.
(2) Why do we want space to develop our individual talents, lifestyles, and identities?
So we started the Quest for Me and did all that self-finding and passion-seeking for 16+ years. Part of the reason we did so instead of, say, learning how to do something that would be of use to somebody, is that for that entire time we had no long-term responsibilities. It’s not like I was a blacksmith’s son in a small village who was expected to learn the trade so somebody could shoe the horses when Dad got too old. I knew I was going to go to college out of state, and then live wherever I darn well pleased, doing whatever I wanted. The Quest for Me wasn’t just a quest to find myself. It was also a quest to find myself for my own sake.
Now, my college administrators didn’t see it that way—they kept hammering home that great responsibility came with that art history degree Mr. Prodigy was getting. But the responsibility wasn’t linked to a particular place; it was a responsibility to Humanity, and hey, I can help Humanity in D.C. too, can’t I? (For more on the failures of the ridiculous Help Humanity/Think Global concept, read this post from a few weeks ago.)
I’ve worked with impoverished rural communities in Colorado that have lost most of their young people—the parents invested years of toil into preparing the kids for college, in the vain hope that the kids would bring back skills that would help the community. Problem: the kids didn’t see it that way. They paid attention to the way they’d been raised, and “followed their passions” to Manhattan and never came back. And now their home towns are literally dying out (or becoming havens for illegal immigrants that the parents hire in desperation to keep the farms going).
Yet just like with my last question, there’s a “funny thing” factor. The funny thing here is that it’s precisely a connection with something outside myself, something that demands a certain degree of responsibility or conformity, that might have made my Quest for Me a success. As Brooks pointed out beautifully in his response to the silly “I Love Jesus but Hate Religion” YouTube video, you can’t find answers inside yourself when you don’t know the answers. You’re better off finding a tradition to join. And as T.S. Eliot showed in last week’s post, while this is a lot harder than seeking yourself (understanding a tradition actually requires hard work), it is what actually allows you to find yourself, to know what is truly unique about yourself, and to do good in the world.
But this leads to one more question.
(3) What’s the significance of the fact that people who live alone are more likely to choose to visit friends and join social groups?
The one potential problem with Brooks’ suggestion that you choose a tradition is, well, the idea that you can choose a tradition. And here again the movies my generation grew up with provide an illustration. In the Colin Firth and Amanda Bynes chick flick What a Girl Wants, a girl is told (against her instincts) not to look for meaning by finding out more about her dad, her family, her responsibilities, her traditions…but to ignore all that and look inside. Problem: in contrast to the moral message of the movie, all those things are a part of her whether she likes it or not. She didn’t choose a tradition; it chose her. When you’re deciding on your beliefs, you don’t start with a blank slate—you either accept what’s been handed down to you, or you rebel against it and choose something else (again, Eliot made this point in the post last week).
Naturally, as Klinenberg points out in Brooks’ column, someone who lives alone will be more likely to visit friends. Someone who is starving is more likely to go find food, too. The fact that he’s looking for it isn’t evidence that he’s well fed.
On the contrary, community, like tradition, isn’t something you choose. Visiting friends or joining groups doesn’t make community, just like reading a book doesn’t make you part of a tradition. Tradition and community are each a big bundle of “stifling situations” that demand that you (to varying extents) conform your identity, your lifestyle, and your talents to the needs, customs, and values of the particular one you find around you. Esther Moon asked some very challenging questions about that in her recent post, “Detention with the Outcasts.” Sure, modern America definitely offers more choices than medieval Europe did. We can choose a church. We can choose a neighborhood and even a city. But within the context of those choices, there are stifling situations. Once we make a choice, we have to live like we’re a part of a community, like we’re part of a tradition—with all the responsibilities those things entail.
Or we could do what we’ve done all our lives: dodge those responsibilities and continue the Quest for Me. We break up when the boyfriend becomes demanding. We live alone because our roommate never cleaned the bathroom. We move when the neighbors become annoying. We switch churches when the preaching grows dull, the cool music director leaves, or that snarky woman keeps asking why we haven’t become members. (We also affiliate politically as independents for similar reasons, irritated at the idea that people want us to sign on to a list of ideas somebody else came up with.)
I’m not preaching; I’ve done some of these things too—we all have. But let’s not lie to ourselves. When we refuse to engage in “stifling situations,” we avoid all the things we’ve been conditioned to dislike—conformity, inconvenience, commitment. But we often also deny ourselves the opportunity to find ourselves, to develop our talents, to do good in the world, and to discover meaning in life.
Yes, when we live alone, we’re more likely to visit friends. But let’s not pretend that’s community. We can’t have community, find Mr. Right or inner peace, or do any of the other things we’re desperately searching for, until we’re willing to reject the most central principle of our childhood: that life revolves around us.
This post was originally published on February 23 2012.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.