alternate futures
April 8, 2011, 12:33 am
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

David Brooks describes two worlds in his article about life fulfillment called the Social Animal.  One is an empty yet realized life, and the other full and usually elusive.

The empty life is founded on advice and coaching and what society says a good life should be.  Needless to say this world of stern advice and empty results is staggeringly ironic.  Base your life on career skills, get degreed at the right school, concentrate on the minutiae of technique and performance, leverage intelligence, and you will succeed says society.

But you won’t find achievement or fulfillment, says Brooks.  None of the advisors and coaches nor social maxims are there when you need answers to life’s most important questions:  love, friendship, loyalty, belief, disavowal.  For these intimate and essential decisions you’re on your own.

Life taken instrumentally rings hollow, and we’re left indecisive and anxious.  But there is another way and another world.  It’s a world of high achievement and you arrive at it by completely different priorities, says Brooks.  They are qualities that are elusive and hard won:  understanding, reading, discerning, trusting and building, self understanding and imagining.  And effective:  they lead us out of the wilderness of our anxiety and striving.

Here is the description from Social Animal:

Occasionally, you meet a young, rising member of this class at the gelato store, as he hovers indecisively over the cloudberry and ginger-pomegranate selections, and you notice that his superhuman equilibrium is marred by an anxiety.  Many members of this class, like many Americans generally, have a vague sense that their lives have been distorted by a giant cultural bias.  They live in a society that prizes the development of career skills but is inarticulate when it comes to the things that matter most. The young achievers are tutored in every soccer technique and calculus problem, but when it comes to their most important decisions—whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise—they are on their own. Nor, for all their striving, do they understand the qualities that lead to the highest achievement. Intelligence, academic performance, and prestigious schools don’t correlate well with fulfillment, or even with outstanding accomplishment.  The traits that do make a difference are poorly understood, and can’t be taught in a classroom, no matter what the tuition: the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships; to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings; to imagine alternate futures. In short, these achievers have a sense that they are shallower than they need to be.

Social Animal, David Brooks, The New Yorker


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