Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Find Your Compass All Around You

William Deresiewicz has been writing a lot about the problems with an Ivy League education.  As someone in possession of two expensive degrees from Stanford and another expensive degree from Harvard Business School, I am both sympathetic to his points and terrified that he'll damage the value of the brands that I (and my parents) paid so much for.

In a recent interview that appeared in The Atlantic, Deresiewicz said something that made me pause for reflection:
"These kids were always the best of their class, and their teachers were always praising them, inflating their ego. But it’s a false self-esteem. It’s not real self-possession, where you are measuring yourself against your own internal standards and having a sense that you’re working towards something. It’s totally conditional, and constantly has to be pumped up by the next grade, the next A, or gold star."
The notion that praise and grade-grubbing are dangerous is well established--just look at the work of Carol Dweck.  But what interests me is the notion of self-possession.

The paradox of self-possession is that unless it is tempered with feedback from the outside world, it is self-delusion.  On the one hand, it's critical to find yourself.  On the other hand, without experiencing the outside world, you can't find yourself.

When I think about my own self-awareness, I difficulty tracing it to its origins.  How do I know that I love to write?  When I was a child, I loved reading, and decided I wanted to tell my own stories.  When I was older, I wrote a lot of papers, and professors gave me a lot of "A"s.  After I graduated, I wrote things, and people read them and enjoyed them.  Does that mean that I was measuring myself by external standards, rather than internal ones?

When I was young, I loved books indiscriminately, but as I got older, my ability to distinguish between "good" writing and "bad" writing increased.  Yet even now, it is hard to judge.  Some authors have amazingly interesting ideas, but indifferent prose.  Others have hackneyed ideas but are outstanding prose stylists.  Is Dave Barry a great writer?  Stephen King?

And when I judge my own writing, I'm applying an internal standard, but it is an internal standard that I developed by reading other works, as well as others' criticism of those other works.

Developing your internal compass is one of the essential parts of growing up (and something which not everyone accomplishes).  Yet people who tell you to "find yourself" are providing advice that is useless, or worse, actively harmful.  Self is not a treasure that you can find; it is a foundation that you lay, brick by brick, by experiencing the ideas and the world around you.