Sunday, June 01, 2008

Generation Me

By Rich Bordner

Lately I’ve been reading a book called Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before by Jean Twenge.

The book is about, well, you and me. How we’ve been weaned from birth in the American uber-individualistic, autonomous, follow-your-dreams culture where high self-esteem trumps almost every other consideration. It’s seen as an unmitigated good. Yet, you can’t change reality, so folks in my generation are often cynical and jaded as a result of the dissonance created by our crash into the brick wall of reality.

Twenge comes from a secular perspective, but there’s a lot in the book I can agree with. Though she’s a bit over-opinionated at times, and though she sometimes exaggerates, she has done her research for the most part, and it’s hard to deny there’s something going on that’s cause for concern. It’s hard to deny, for instance, that our education of self-esteem has not produced appropriately confident individuals, but has backfired and produced a bunch of narcissists and blame shifters.

Yeah, not everyone’s like that, but there’s so much of it out there that it’s hard to deny that things have gotten out of hand.

Some of the comments she reports from her research subjects I hear commonly.

Just the other day, I watched The Bee Movie. The theme was a familiar one: the main character bucks the system and follows his dreams. Everyone thinks he’s crazy, but he goes for it, and eventually gets what he wants. He overcomes the obstacles; doesn’t listen to what others tell him he should do; doesn’t follow his society’s expectations, etc. It’s basically the theme of about every Disney movie and show in the last 20 or so years.

Another example: I was perusing myspace pages the other day. I came across the page of one of my "friends" (actually, they were all "friends" pages). I rarely talk to this gal. She seems to want nothing to do with me after my car broke down and I had to cancel hanging out with her once... this happened over 2 years ago. But that’s another story. Anyway, she had a blog of quotes/thoughts, and one of them encouraged people to "believe in yourself."

While there’s an ounce of truth to that, perhaps, it comes straight from our individualistic, "who-cares-what-others-tell-you" culture.

If you pay attention, you see stuff like this anywhere. The author of a popular 70s self-help book argued that you can do anything you put your mind to, and not to let others’ opinions get in the way. "Don’t tell me what to ain’t the boss of me anyway."

While well-intentioned, those who espouse this advice without qualification miss some critical things. Yes, you can get far with hard work, very far, and sometimes people’s opinions do get you down. But many times you need to listen to others, cuz they are looking out for you, and they can see through your blind spots.

And clearly, the sky’s not the limit. If you think so, you are setting yourself up for depression.

Example: Every year thousands upon thousands of teenagers who sincerely believe they can do anything they put their minds to put their minds to going to top notch colleges. They all work extremely, extremely hard... crazy hard. A perfect SAT score, a long list of extracurricular activities, and countless AP courses do not guarantee you admission into the college of your choice. Not even close. In 2003, for instance, Notre Dame rejected 39% of high school valedictorians who applied. Swarthmore rejected 62% of applicants with a perfect 800 verbal SAT score and 58% of students with a perfect math score.

Grad school is worse. Think of the numbers of uber-high achievers who try to get into grad schools every year, and think of the rejection rates. Yale law school lets in only 7% of applicants a year. U of Maryland law, 13%. Harvard Med, 4.9%. UCLA, 4.5%. In 2004, more than half of medical school applicants were not admitted to any program.

The point here is not cynicism. Cynicism will be the result if the "follow your dreams" attitude isn’t mitigated with a bit of reality. And yes, working hard is a necessary lesson to learn. I preach it to my students daily. All I’m arguing for is that we turn it down a notch on the "you can do anything you want to do" mantra.

My life is a testament to this...I was hardest worker on my grade school wrestling team. Same for middle school. I was one of the most dedicated in high school. I’d drill for 2-3 hours a day in the summer. Lift until I could barely walk. College was no different. I’d come in with my drill partner when others were relaxing. All for one goal: to be an NCAA division I wrestling champion. Did I accomplish that? No... not even close. I didn’t even start in college. I never even went to the Big Ten tournament once, much less the NCAA’s.

Do I regret that experience and consider my efforts a waste? Not by any stretch of the imagination. I loved it. I got further than most expected me to, after all. But I worked my butt off and never came close to "following my dream." I can only think of how much a basket case I’d have been had I sincerely believed the spirit of the age.

Teaching kids this will save them a lot of stress and grief.

Another one: "Be yourself." I have a friend on myspace whose page runs that theme. "I’m gonna just be me. I’m me...who are you?"

Yes...but what if you’re a jerk? What if you’re annoying?

You get the picture. I know I have certain character flaws. I don’t want to "be myself" and in the process run all over someone else with my flaws. I don’t want to be more myself; I want to become more like Christ. There is room for this in manifesting your personality traits. But character traits that get in the way of you becoming more fully human are another question.

A third popular trait of Generation Me the leveling of authority. Twenge relates the story of Peter Sacks, a community college professor who expressed frustration over the attitude of his students. Despite the fact that he’s a PROFESSOR and has spent years upon years learning in his field, the COMMUNITY COLLEGE students felt uncomfortable with the notion that he knew more than they did or that his skills/knowledge were relevant. Not that he intentionally bragged about it, mind you; he just got tired of hearing "that’s just your opinion" when he corrected their writings.

We really can take this "question authority" attitude too far. Granted, some folks are really crackpots, but that doesn’t mean that your "opinion" is just as good as theirs, and it doesn’t malign authorities as a whole. Some people just have a more principled position of knowledge.

This is especially the case with wise men and women. We should humbly listen to them, because they really DO know more than us; they’ve "been there done that." The "fear of man" that pushes us to do things contrary to God’s will just for human praise is something totally different. I’m talking about real wisdom here, even when we might bristle against it.

There are countless other places which our "ME" attitude shows itself. I’m starting to see it ALL over the place. The good thing is that I’m beginning to question the "me" attitudes and thought habits that come so natural to a guy of this generation.

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