Briefly noted: Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life — William Deresiewicz

Excellent Sheep is great though polemical—snide remarks about tech companies are neither true nor useful—and one gets a sense of its contents from “Solitude and Leadership: If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts,” which went viral for the best of reasons (as opposed to the worst, which is more common). “Eros in the Classroom” is also good, though curiously erotically attenuated, and could be read profitably in tandem with Laura Kipnis’s “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” The two point to the need for satirization of contemporary academic mores, but that satirization is already so thorough that its failure to make much of a dent inside academia is obvious.

excellent_SheepBut Excellent Sheep is comprehensive, despite its overreach. But major orators know that if they have the audience the audience will forgive much, as such is the case here. The book is situated as one that fills a need and one that speaks to the author’s earlier self:

This book, in many ways, is a letter to my twenty-year-old self. It talks about the kinds of things I wish someone had encouraged me to think about when I was going to college—such as what the point of college might be in the first place.

I was like so many kids today (and so many kids back then.) I went off to college like a sleepwalker, like a zombie. College was a blank. College was the ‘next thing.’ [. . .] Up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth, getting to the top—in a word, ‘success.’

I was perhaps slightly less blank but barely so. That being said, I often try to talk to current college students about what college is about and usually get resistance. So it may be that Deresiewicz’s twenty-year-old self wouldn’t listen to older Deresiewicz anyway. And, like almost any book of this sort, Excellent Sheep probably won’t be read by many of the students who could most benefit from reading it. Many who might be handed it might resist it. Slightly analogously, I’m struck by Emily Nussbaum’s description of Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior: “In 1988, when her short-story collection Bad Behavior came out, it became a dorm-room bible for women I knew: Finally, here was a fiction writer unafraid to walk straight through the feminist battlefields of that very strange period.” I’ve assigned it before and it’s not been treated as a Bible; some students cottoned to it but some strongly resisted, though I also don’t think of it as dealing with “the feminist battlefields” of anything: I think of the stories as being about individuals, not dreary ideologies or ideological think-pieces.

Deresiewicz has a keen grasp of what’s happening in contemporary academia and, often, life itself. He writes of a “system,” or “a set of tightly interlocking parts,” including “private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants, test-prep courses and enrichment programs; the admissions process itself; [. . .] the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the BA [. . .]” and of course much more. But this paragraph is the most interesting:

What that system does to kds and how they can escape from it, what it does to our society and how we can dismantle it—those are the subjects of this book. I was teaching a class at Yale on the literature of friendship. One day we got around to talking about the importance of being alone. The ability to engage in introspection, I suggested, is the essential precondition for living the life of the mind, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. My students took this in for a second—introspection, solitude, the life of the mind, things they probably had not been asked to think about before—then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, “So are you just saying that we’re all just, like really excellent sheep?”

He goes on: “The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” I’ve noticed those things. They are of course not pervasive. But I also find them impossible to miss.

Excellent Sheep is a truer work of philosophy than 99% of the stuff published under the banner of “philosophy.”

Already I’ve chewed through a thousand words and two long blockquotes and have gotten to page three of Excellent Sheep. That should speak to the book’s quality. To attend to its every argument would be to almost write another book. As I said before, don’t trust everything. But do read it. It is also interesting to me that this article about Peter Thiel describes his mistrust of the education system, which partially evolved from his unhappiness with a track-based life and system. Yet this system persists for reasons, some of which Megan McArdle articulates in “What Really Scares Helicopter Parents.” The system has been in construction for decades. Startups are one route around them. Self-publishing is another. One can no doubt imagine more.

Many people are bad at being and bad at purpose. Including, possibly, me. Excellent Sheep challenges them, which is to say, us.

 

Links: The end of humanity, food, coffee, nuclear power, fear the police

* “A Primer on the Doomsday Argument;” incidentally I am a long-term pessimist on the ultimate fate of humanity, and today’s utter failure to price carbon emissions appropriately or build better cities does not make me hopeful.

* “Five legal rights women have that men do not,” file under “points rarely made” though points 1 and 2 are dubious.

* The science behind eat food, mostly plants, and not too much; I’d add “avoid simple carbs” as perhaps the most important.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA* “Olive oil and salad combined ‘explain’ Med diet success; this is basically every third day’s primary meal in our household.

* The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse. Now people talk to their computers.

* This seems impossible: “Y Combinator And Mithril Invest In Helion, A Nuclear Fusion Startup.”

* “Why I don’t call the police [. . . ] It’s become a given for me that if the criminal justice system gets a hold of a black person, there is a terrible risk that it will try to crush him.”

* “A brash tech entrepreneur thinks he can reinvent higher education by stripping it down to its essence, eliminating lectures and tenure along with football games, ivy-covered buildings, and research libraries. What if he’s right?”

* “How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen,” maybe. My not-original observation is that most people want to know if they will get paid or laid tomorrow, and if their wife’s brother’s husband is making more than they are.

* “My Most Offended Readers Are Ivy-Bound 18-Year-Olds;” my copy of Excellent Sheep arrived yesterday and yes I do love it so far.

College, William Deresiewicz’s Tsunami, and better ways of thinking about university costs

I’m an on-the-record fan of William Deresiewicz, which made reading “Tsunami: How the market is destroying higher education” distressing. It blames problems in contemporary higher education on capitalism and markets, but I think it ignores a couple of things, the most important of which is the role in colleges in raising prices, increasing the number of administrators, and reducing teaching loads for tenured faculty.

Beyond that, Deresiewicz discusses Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which is a dubious place to start; see, for example, “Shock Jock” for one critique. In it, Tyler Cowen notes that “Most of the book is a button-pressing, emotionally laden, whirlwind tour of global events over the last 30 years” and that “The book offers not so much an argument but rather a Dadaesque juxtaposition of themes and supposedly parallel developments in the global market.” Klein’s book reminds me of the bad academic writing that assumes the dubious evils of capitalism without quite spelling out what those dubious evils are or what plausible alternatives exist.

Returning to Deresiewicz: “College is now judged in terms of ‘return on investment,’ the delivery of immediately negotiable skills.” But this might simply be due to rising costs: when college was (relatively) inexpensive, it was easy to pay less attention to ROI issues; when it’s almost impossible to afford without loans for middle-class families, it becomes much harder. ROI on degrees that, in contemporary terms, cost $20,000 can be safely ignored. ROI on degrees that cost $150,000 can’t be.

Second, even at public (and private non-profit) schools, some people are getting rich: the college presidents and other managers (including coaches) whose salaries range well into the six figures and higher.

Presidents and other bureaucrats make popular punching bags—hell, I took a couple whacks in my first paragraph—and perhaps they are “overpaid” (though one should ask why Boards of Trustees are willing to pay them what they do), but such highly-paid administrators still aren’t very expensive relative to most colleges’ overall budgets. I would like to see universities exercise greater discipline in this area, but I doubt they will until they’re forced to by markets. At the moment, schools are underwritten by federally-backed, non-dischargeable loans taken out by students. Until we see real reform,

The only good answer about the rise in college costs that I’ve seen come from Robert Archibald and David Feldman’s Why Does College Cost So Much? Their short answer: “Baumol’s Cost Disease.” Unfortunately, it’s more fun pointing fingers at evil administrators, evil markets, evil capitalism, and ignorance students who want to know how much they’re going to make after they graduate.

At the very least, Why Does College Cost So Much? is a better place to start than The Shock Doctrine.

These questions are getting more and more play in the larger culture. Is College a Lousy Investment? appears in The Daily Beast. “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College” appears in The New York Times. A surprisingly large number of people with degrees are working in jobs that don’t require them: in coffee shops, as bartenders, as flight attendants, and so on. That’s a lot of money for a degree that turns out to be primarily about personal development and partying. So what should students, at the individual level, do?

To figure out whether college is a good idea, you have to start with what you’re trying to accomplish: getting a credential or gaining knowledge. If the primary purpose is the latter, and you have a strong sense of what you want to do and how you want to do it, college isn’t automatically the best option. It probably is if you’re 18, because, although you don’t realize this now, you don’t know anything. It might not be when you’re, say, 23, however.

Part of the problem with discussing “college” is that you’re discussing a huge number of varied institutions that do all sorts of things for all sorts of people. For people getting $200,000 English degrees from non-elite universities, college makes less sense (mine cost about half that much, and in retrospect I might’ve been better off with a state school for half again as much, but it seemed like a good idea at the time and seems to have worked out for me, as an individual). For people getting technical degrees from state schools, college does a huge amount for lifetime earnings. Talking about these two very different experiences of “college” is like talking about eating at McDonald’s and eating at New York’s best restaurant: they’re both about selling food, but the differences dwarf the similarities. College is so many different things that generalizing is tough or simply dumb.

In response to paragraphs like mine, above, we’re getting essays like Keith Burgess-Jackson’s “You Are Not My Customer.” Burgess-Jackson is correct to say that not everything can be valued in terms of dollars—that’s a point that Lewis Hyde makes in The Gift and others have made in terms of market vs. non-market economies. The question is whether we should view university education through a market lets.

When tuition was relatively cheap and quite affordable in absolute and relative terms, it made sense to look at universities through a “gift”-style lens, as Burgess-Jackson wants us to. Now that tuition is extremely high, however, we basically don’t have the luxury of making this choice: we can’t be paying $50,000 – $250,000 for an undergrad degree and have the attitude of “Thank you sir, may I have another.” It’s one or the other, not both, and universities are the ones setting prices.

Comments like this: “Good teachers know that most learning, certainly all durable learning, is self-effected” are true. But if Burgess-Jackson thinks that his students aren’t customers, wait until the administration finds that no one will or wants to take his classes. Unless he’s a publishing superstar, I suspect he’ll find out otherwise. I’d like universities to be less market-oriented and more gift-oriented, but an era of $20,000+ comprehensive costs for eight to nine months of instruction just doesn’t make that orientation plausible.

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter — William Deresiewicz

I really like and admire A Jane Austen Education, despite agreeing with the younger Deresiewicz who the older one mocks for believing sentiments like this one, about Jane Austen’s Emma: “The story seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village. No grand events, no great issues, and, inexplicably for a writer of romance novels, not even any passion.” Deresiewicz is setting himself up to be knocked down, and yet when I read Emma I, too, was bored by the “chitchat” among the bumpkins.

But Deresiewicz goes on to explain why his younger self was totally wrong, and how he grew as a person through closely reading Jane Austen and applying her novels to his life experience. Though his explanation is persuasive, I still don’t buy it. To me, the characters in Emma are still “a pretty unpromising bunch of people to begin with, and then all they seemed to do was sit around and talk: about who was sick, who had had a card party the night before, who had said what to whom. Mr. Woodhouse’s idea of a big time was taking a stroll around the garden.” I usually call the ceaseless chatter without any action referent “empty status games,” because the games don’t refer to anything outside their immediate social situations (granted, it might also be that I don’t usually excel in them). These sorts of situations are akin to the ones Paul Graham describes in “Why Nerds Are Unpopular:”

I think the important thing about the real world is [that. . . ] it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects. That’s what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.

Jane Austen’s societies obviously don’t generate into savagery—unless they’ve been transformed into Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (“Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!”)—but their inhabitants do feel “trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect,” which makes them unsatisfying, at least to my temperament. Graham might also not be an ideal person to cite, given how much he admires Austen: “Everyone admires Jane Austen. Add my name to the list. To me she seems the best novelist of all time.” Still, strike me from the list: her style is amazing and her content vapid. Consider this description, also from Deresiewicz:

One whole chapter—Isabella had just brought her family home for Christmas—consisted entirely of aimless talk, as everyone caught up on one another’s news. For more than half a dozen pages, the plot simply came to a halt. But the truth was, for long stretches of the book there really wasn’t much plot to speak of.

Or this: “What could be duller, I thought, than a bunch of long, heavy novels, by women novelists, in stilted language, on trivial subjects?” There are much duller books—Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable comes to mind, since those are novels written to make some philosophical statement about the meaninglessness of life or to give English professors a bone to gnaw into scholarly papers—but the point stands. I’m not opposed to “women novelists,” and anyone who is on the grounds of perceived unimportance should try The Secret History and Gone Girl, but “long, heavy novels [. . .] on trivial subjects” are tedious regardless of their author’s gender.

Moreover, I’m not alone: “As it turned out, people had been reacting to Jane Austen exactly as I had for as long as they’d been reading her. The first reviews warned that readers might find her stories ‘trifling,’ with ‘no great variety,’ ‘extremely deficient’ in imagination and ‘entirely devoid of invention,’ with ‘so little narrative’ that it was hard to even describe what they were about.” At some level, as happens with much art, a preference for Austen may come down to temperament, and to what a person believes about what The Novel or a novel should do. I’ve never been able to get into novels that don’t have some kind of narrative drive or energy—both vague terms that I could spend the rest of this essay describing, or, rather, trying to describe—and, like Lev Grossman, I think “Plot makes perverts of us all:”

A good story is a dirty secret that we all share. It’s what makes guilty pleasures so pleasurable, but it’s also what makes them so guilty. A juicy tale reeks of crass commercialism and cheap thrills. We crave such entertainments, but we despise them.

For as long as a century, however, if not longer, literary culture has been bifurcating between high-culture, non-plot types who inhabit universities and book reviews and institutions, and common readers, who like something to happen and maybe some T&A or depraved longings in their fiction, even if the language used for the T&A and depraved longings isn’t very interesting. Most of us are taught that long, tedious books written in stilted language are more valuable than those that do the opposite.

To be sure, I don’t think the people who genuinely love Austen have been academically brainwashed—I think they do authentically love her writing—but I also think the original reviewers and the younger Deresiewicz have a point too, but that point is mostly drowned in school-based settings.

At the time Deresiewicz had his Austen breakthrough, he was seeing a waitress, and they “had little in common and had never progressed beyond the sex. She was gorgeous, bisexual, impulsive, experienced, with a look that knew things and a laugh that didn’t give a damn.” Perhaps this is a function of me being in my 20s, but this arrangement doesn’t sound so bad, and, having dated the equivalent woman, I rather enjoyed those things at the time. Furthermore, I don’t think such relationships are wrong—though I would also say, obviously, that they’re not the only kind of relationships available, or the only kind a person should have over the course of their life. Sometimes people eat fast food; other times they dine in fine restaurants, or at the Cheesecake Factory, or cook for themselves, or cook with another person, or cook simple foods, or complex ones, or have potlucks. I leave it to you to map that metaphor onto sexuality and relationships, but the point about variety in relationships is useful. For Deresiewicz, “Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness—taught me what moral seriousness really means. It means taking responsibility for the little world, not the big one. It means taking responsibility for yourself.” But people who are always morally serious can also be dull, just as people who are never morally serious are often unintentionally cruel.

The trick is being able to distinguish the two, and to find a middle way, and to develop some self-awareness, which is hard for many if not most of us. Certainly it was hard for Deresiewicz’s younger self:

If you’re oblivious to other people, chances are pretty good that you’re going to hurt them. I knew now that if I was ever going to have any real friends—or I should say, any real friends with my friends—I’d have to do something about it. I’d have to learn to stop being a defensive, reactive, self-enclosed jerk.

On the other hand, being oblivious to other people sometimes means being very tuned into technical or other problems that need solving—for the best example of this I’ve seen in literature, consider Lawrence Waterhouse in Cryptonomicon, who is shockingly oblivious and essential to the Allied war effort and who extends cryptography. It should also be noted that he’s not intentionally mean to others, and in the novel no one is emotionally hurt by him in an obvious fashion, but the depiction of his thought process as an engineer / mathematician seems pretty accurate. You get moments like this: “In particular, the final steps of the organist’s explanation were like a falcon’s dive through layer after layer of pretense and illusion, thrilling or sickening or confusing depending on what you were. The heavens were riven open. Lawrence glimpsed choirs of angels ranking off into geometrical infinity,” perhaps in exchange for attention to other people. To what extent are dispositions trade-offs? It’s a decent question, I think, but also one I can’t really answer.

Which is the kind of thing that I’m encouraged to do; in one moment, Deresiewicz praises the kind of professor we all hope to have: “When my professor asked a question, it wasn’t because he wanted us to get or guess ‘the’ answer; it was because he hadn’t figured out an answer yet himself, and genuinely wanted to hear what we had to say.” This is what I try to do in the classroom, although I’m guessing this kind of strategy works better for humanities students than for, say, math students, when the answer or answers are well-known, at least up to a fairly high level.

There are also intellectual surprises in A Jane Austen Education, and those surprises made me realize things I didn’t before:

Popular music is one giant shout of desire, one great rallying cry for freedom and pleasure. Pop psychology sends us the same signals, and so does advertising. ‘Trust your feelings,’ we are told. ‘Listen to your heart.’ ‘If it feels good, do it.’

And if everything is pointing you in one direction, it might be time to ask what lies in the other. Literature seems to ask this question. Pop music, as Deresiewicz points out, doesn’t. In Deresiewicz’s rendition, Austen herself was reacting against her time, which is to be commended:

Austen lived in the great age of trash fiction: the gothic novel, the sentimental novel, the bodice ripper—crumbling castles, creaking doors, and secret passageways; heavenly maidens and dark seducers, piercing shrieks and floods of tears, wild rides and breathless escapes; shipwrecks, deathbeds, abductions, avowals; poverty, misery, rape, and incest.

In other words, she lived in “the great age” of all the good stuff, though I would argue that the good stuff is still with us if we know where to look—I’m pretty sure Game of Thrones has every element in the Deresiewicz list.

Some weird stylistic quirks recur in the book, like the habit of “Austen was showing me” or “Austen was saying”-style constructions (“I could grow up and finding happiness, Austen was letting me know, but only if I was willing to give up something very important” or “Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness—taught me what moral seriousness really means” or “Austen understood that kids are going to make mistakes, and she also understood that making mistakes is not the end of the world”). But the overall effectiveness is tremendous, and not only because I might be a major component of Deresiewicz’s target audience: self-absorbed people who secretly think they have the answers other people lack.

The power of story: Jane Austen / William Deresiewicz edition

“People’s stories are the most personal thing they have, and paying attention to those stories is just about the most important thing you can do for them.”

—William Deresiewicz, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter

The Uses of Poetry and Search Queries

Blog search traffic patterns are fascinating when they clearly relate to someone’s English class—over the past couple days, I’ve seen a few dozen hits on “Ian McEwan and ‘The Use of Poetry.’” Many come in a form like this, from today: “the use of poetry ian mcewan analysis”. On November 15, when I’m writing this, the McEwan piece already has 20 hits, which is very unusual for a two-year-old post that hasn’t been, so far as I know, linked to by other bloggers or discussed on forums. Given the nature of the queries, I would guess that students are the prime consumers, and out there somewhere are papers on “The Use of Poetry” that will claim seduction to be the primary use of poetry, never mind the distinction I make that seduction is the primary use of poetry for Michael Beard, the eventual protagonist of Ian McEwan’s Solar, and what is true of Michael Beard will not necessarily be true of every reader of poetry.

This semester I assigned Tom Perrotta’s Election and Anita Shreve’s Testimony to my own students. When the first draft of the paper came due, I noticed that “Thoughts on Anita Shreve’s Testimony and Tom Perrotta’s Election” was getting an unusual number of hits; points two and seven occurred distressing frequency in the papers I eventually read. Some of that is probably due to those features being obvious in the novels. The rest might be attributable to the Internet. No one outright plagiarized, to my knowledge, though I have heard professors say that students search the Internet, find one of the professor’s articles on a subject, copy it, and then turn it in to the very professor who wrote the article.

These practices remind me of William Deresiewicz’s essay Solitude and Leadership: If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts,” where he says

I sat on the Yale College admissions committee a couple of years ago. The first thing the admissions officer would do when presenting a case to the rest of the committee was read what they call the “brag” in admissions lingo, the list of the student’s extracurriculars. Well, it turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble. Because the students who got in—in addition to perfect grades and top scores—usually had 10 or 12.

So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever.

What worries me about the people searching for “The Use of Poetry” or Election is simple: I get the sense many of the people doing so are becoming “hoop jumpers,” instead of thinking for themselves. The scholarly and intellectual practice of seeking the opinions of others to stimulate your own thinking is an important one. But how many of the searchers for “analysis” are doing that? I suspect most of them are looking for someone else’s pre-digested work to parrot back to their instructors. And this might be a viable way of getting through school. But the digestion is the point—without the time spent struggling with a problem in your own mind, you’re not going to learn how to identify and solve problems that no one else has seen, or worked on, or discussed.

I see this issue around me among grad students (and, sometimes, professors). A lot of grad students have spent their whole lives trying to please someone else, and when they get to the point in their careers—usually around their dissertation—where they have to work without real guidance or guidelines, many flail. A lot of people in general experience that sense when they leave school, whether they leave at 18 or 38. The externally imposed goals and rules get removed. Instead of being told the use of poetry, or statistics, or calculus, they have to decide it for themselves. But if they haven’t spent time thinking about what poetry might do in “The Use of Poetry,” or how McEwan expresses himself, or any number of other things, they aren’t going to have the skills they need not only to write, but to deal with life.

The Internet is a wonderful thing for seeking the opinions of others, but it’s a mistake to seek them before you’ve taken the time to try and develop opinions and skills of your own. If you lean too much on others, you won’t be able to work through things for yourself. Deresiewicz gets this, and the perils of too much copying and listening to others and going to the Internet for opinions: “I can assure you from personal experience that there are a lot of highly educated people who don’t know how to think at all.” Used wrongly, the Internet can become a vessel not for thinking, but for its opposite. Before you hit the Internet for ideas, you need to give yourself time to develop what Grady Tripp, in Wonder Boys, calls “the midnight disease,” which writers suffer from; he describes it this way:

[… it] started out as a simple feeling of disconnection from other people, an inability to ‘fit in’ by no means unique to writers, a sense of envy and of unbridgeable distance like that felt by someone tossing a restless pillow in a world full of sleepers. Very quickly, though, what happened with the midnight disease was that you began actually to crave this feeling of apartness, to cultivate and even flourish within it. You pushed yourself farther and farther and farther apart until one black day you woke to discover that you yourself had become the chief object of your hostile gaze.

And I don’t think this unique to writer: programmers, hackers, engineers, scientists, and others probably feel too (Richard Feynman in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: “Mr. Frankel [. . .] began to suffer from the computer disease that anybody who works with computers now knows about. It’s a very serious disease and it interferes completely with the work. The trouble with computers is that you play with them”): all the people who, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, still desire to walk free under the sun even as they are compelled to return to darkness and solitude. The solitude is what it takes to do the work. Writers, at least of the novelist variety, are usually writing about people, which makes it odd that one needs to get away from people to describe people, but it’s nonetheless true. Tripp calls it a “disease” and “a simple feeling of disconnection,” both with their negative connotations, but Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it Flow and others call it creativity. Creativity needs other ideas to stimulate it—that’s one of Steven Berlin Johnson’s main points in Where Good Ideas Come From—but it also needs silence. It needs to stay away from Google, from other people babbling in your ear and telling you what to think and giving you their dubious “analysis.” The Internet gives us the option of letting others do our thinking for us. So, if you’re reading this on the Internet, let me encourage you to think for yourself before others do it for you.

Week 36 Links: A Jane Austen Education, what Facebook is like, The Longform.org Guide to the Porn Industry, A Game of Thrones as comedy, and more

Who put a bikini on this poor statue?

* Reading this review of William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education is bizarre because it’s like reading about myself, right down to the love for Madame Bovary:

In 1990, William Deresiewicz was on his way to gaining a Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia University. Describing that time in the opening pages of his sharp, endearingly self-effacing new book, “A Jane Austen Education,” Deresiewicz explains that he faced one crucial obstacle. He loathed not just Jane Austen but the entire gang of 19th-century British novelists: Hardy, Dickens, Eliot . . . the lot.

At 26, Deresiewicz wasn’t experiencing the hatred born of surfeit that Mark Twain described when he told a friend, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.” What Deresiewicz (who has considerable fun at the expense of his pompous younger self) was going through was the rebel phase in which Dostoyevsky rules Planet Gloom, that stage during which the best available image of marriage is a prison gate.

Sardonic students do not, as Deresiewicz points out, make suitable shrine-­tenders for a female novelist whose books, while short on wedding scenes, never skimp on proposals. Emma Bovary fulfilled all the young scholar’s expectations of literary culture at its finest; Emma Woodhouse left him cold. “Her life,” he lamented, “was impossibly narrow.” Her story, such as it was, “seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village.” Hypochondriacal Mr. Woodhouse, garrulous Miss Bates — weren’t these just the sort of bores Deresiewicz had spent his college years struggling to avoid? Maybe, he describes himself conceding, the sole redeeming feature of smug Miss Woodhouse was that she seemed to share his distaste for the dull society of Highbury.

The major difference is that I’m 27 and he describes himself at 26.

* A description of Facebook: “It seemed too much like tv, in reverse. Everybody transmits and nobody watches.” This is why I read Hacker News comments.

* Slate.com posted “The Longform.org Guide to the Porn Industry, which has a bunch of fascinating essays that are safe for work in the sense that they don’t have explicit photos on them. None are quite as good as David Foster Wallace’s “Big Red Sun” in Consider the Lobster, but that’s like accusing a basketball player of not being Michael Jordan. As I read the essays, I kept thinking of Philip K. Dick in some inchoate, ill-defined fashion—perhaps because he’s done so much to shape my thinking about reality and unreality.

Anyway, the next couple links stem from the Slate links:

* “Larry Flynt used to defend Hustler by calling the nude photo layouts “art.” I would come to joke that the porn video is indigenous Southern California folk art. The cheesy aesthetic — shag-carpet backdrops, tanning-salon chic, bad music, worse hairdos — and the everyman approach to exhibitionism are honest expressions of life in the land of mini-malls, vanity plates and instant stardom.” Evan Wright.

* “Those who enjoy whatever private pleasure is to be gained from receiving physical pain publicly would appear not to overlap at all with those who enjoy whatever private pleasure is to be gained from inflicting shame collectively.” From an article nominally about Sasha Grey and the porn industry, but really about expectations in cultural narratives of shame and redemption.

* “I’d call your right now, but I think you’re attending a retrograde ceremony for the artificial binding of two people in a legal contract regarding their sexual and financial behavior. I hope said ceremony at least has an open bar.”

* “Publishing—at least in general, and at least below the very top echelons of management—is not a fast-paced business, and the sense of urgency and desire for efficiency you might find in the offices of an investment bank or law firm don’t generally exist, simply because publishing doesn’t generally attract the sorts of people you often find in those fields.” This may bode ill for the future of the industry as it exists now.

* “I don’t know exactly what the future [of publishing] will look like, but I’m not too worried about it. This sort of change tends to create as many good things as it kills. Indeed, the really interesting question is not what will happen to existing forms, but what new forms will appear.”

* This is pretty funny: “A Game of Thrones” (the TV show) as a buddy comedy.

Effi Briest — Theodore Fontane, with a side of James Wood and Samuel Delany's Paris Review interview

Despite what I wrote in this post, I got a copy of Effi Briest. And you know what? I couldn’t finish it. There were some great lines—my favorite is Effi’s father saying, “There’s nothing so good for one as a wedding, provided of course it isn’t one’s own”—but I couldn’t take the rest, even though I stopped reading the very nice introduction by Helen Chambers after realizing it was prejudicing me against the book:

The sexual dimensions of the age gap [between Effi and her husband] remain beneath the surface of this discreet and allusive novel. They are suggested, as is much that is vital in the inner action, by the symbolic texture of the narrative. Effi’s sexual inexperience at the beginning of the novel is beyond question, and the premature loss of her virginity is prefigured by the twins calling her back to the garden through a window framed by Virginia Creeper

This explains why little seems to happen, since “remain beneath the surface” feels like another phrase for “buried so deeply that you need an even dirtier mind than mine to excavate it. In a Paris Review interview, Robertson Davies says:

I do not respond quite so immediately and warmly to writers in the United States, because their concerns are different from mine and their approach to them is different from mine. They seem to be infinitely concerned with very subtle details of feeling and life. I find this exemplified, for instance, in many stories in The New Yorker where whether the family will have pumpkin pie or something else on Thanksgiving Day is a decision with infinite psychological and sexual repercussions. I take this quite seriously. I admire their subtlety—but I get so sick of it. I wish they would deal with larger themes.

With enough subtlety, substance disappears, and I love his characterization of American Thanksgivings as portrayed in stories. Anyway, Chambers also says of Effi’s husband, “It seems that after years of self-discipline and mortification of the flesh Innstetten has regulated his natural urges into a state of atrophy.” In the margin I wrote, “Yawn,” a judgment that still seems reasonable a week later. Practically the entire text of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach could fit between the end of the wedding scene on page 26 and the next paragraph, which begins, “The day after the wedding was a bright October day,” as if one of the presumably major events of Effi’s life hadn’t just happened. And I’m not talking about the wedding.

I was thinking about Effi Briest when I read Samuel Delany’s Paris Review interview in the Summer 2011 issue. He talks about two characters in his work Nova who almost have an incestuous relationship. The interviewer begins this exchange:

Did you intentionally want to make something the reader could only speculate about, rather than be certain of?

Delany: Certainly as far as the incest goes. Suggestion is a literary strategy. But when, in 1968, works like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were legal to publish and sell in this country, the age of innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space, as the hero envelops the heroine in his arms, ended. Fifteen years later, AIDS rendered them permanently obsolete.

Today, I watch seminar rooms full of graduate students misread both [Alfred] Bester and [Joseph] Conrad, because they no longer have to wonder about the possibility of such illegal elements occurring in the story and the compensating possibility of suggestion as a writerly strategy for representing sex and violence.

I am one of those graduate students, and I evidently don’t have the exquisitely tuned sex detector that pre-’68 readers might have developed. This became especially clear in a seminar on Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, when one of my professors at the University of Arizona began to point out the many euphemisms and double entendres left by James, beginning with the name “Assingham” and proceeding from there. I mostly wondered what the big fuss was about, given the modesty of the phrases in questions, but I didn’t realize how generational my readings were until I discovered the Delany interview an hour ago.

Delany is right—I don’t have a lot of tolerance of “innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space.” That doesn’t mean I want every novel to be wildly explicit, or that I want pornography to merge with literary fiction, but it does mean that a lot of older books seem coy. Like Effi Briest. Today, when McEwan’s aforementioned novel takes those white spaces and turns them into entire works of their own, it’s hard to accept the white space, or an extraordinarily “discreet and allusive novel” where Virginia Creepers (or pumpkin pie) have “infinite psychological and sexual repercussions”

I didn’t expect to have my malady so accurately and suddenly diagnosed, however, and it wasn’t until I read Delany that I was able to write this post. He makes me want to be a more careful and considerate reader. Or maybe novels do have a sense of technological progression, or something like progress, or even progress itself. James Wood speculates on the subject in his review of Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered:

Does literature progress, like medicine or engineering? Nabokov seems to have thought so, and pointed out that Tolstoy, unlike Homer, was able to describe childbirth in convincing detail. Yet you could argue the opposite view; after all, no novelist strikes the modern reader as more Homeric than Tolstoy. [. . .] Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity—both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation. The novel is peculiar in this respect, because while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions—the basic narrative grammar—of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.

If literature progresses technologically, it still doesn’t do so in quite the same way as technology: no one would use a camera from 1925 unless they were a masochist, had a historical fetish, or were trying to achieve some very peculiar artistic effect. The rest of us use digital cameras manufactured in the last five years, or phones, given the obvious advantages of convenience. But many writers from 1925 still feel quite modern—Fitzgerald, most obviously, but many others too. Yet I don’t find that much 19th Century fiction really moves me (exceptions: Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter). Contemporary writers have a greater and perhaps infinite rein to express what they need to express, and by contrast older writers do seem coy, even if this is an unfair judgment on my part—or the kind of judgment that might be tempered by age. The more I think about the idea, the more I see how others have considered it. For example, this review of William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education is bizarre because it’s like reading about myself, right down to the love for Madame Bovary:

In 1990, William Deresiewicz was on his way to gaining a Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia University. Describing that time in the opening pages of his sharp, endearingly self-effacing new book, “A Jane Austen Education,” Deresiewicz explains that he faced one crucial obstacle. He loathed not just Jane Austen but the entire gang of 19th-century British novelists: Hardy, Dickens, Eliot . . . the lot.

At 26, Deresiewicz wasn’t experiencing the hatred born of surfeit that Mark Twain described when he told a friend, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.” What Deresiewicz (who has considerable fun at the expense of his pompous younger self) was going through was the rebel phase in which Dostoyevsky rules Planet Gloom, that stage during which the best available image of marriage is a prison gate.

Sardonic students do not, as Deresiewicz points out, make suitable shrine-­tenders for a female novelist whose books, while short on wedding scenes, never skimp on proposals. Emma Bovary fulfilled all the young scholar’s expectations of literary culture at its finest; Emma Woodhouse left him cold. “Her life,” he lamented, “was impossibly narrow.” Her story, such as it was, “seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village.” Hypochondriacal Mr. Woodhouse, garrulous Miss Bates — weren’t these just the sort of bores Deresiewicz had spent his college years struggling to avoid? Maybe, he describes himself conceding, the sole redeeming feature of smug Miss Woodhouse was that she seemed to share his distaste for the dull society of Highbury.

I’m 27. Maybe I’ll have considerable fun at the expense of my pompous younger self one day.

I bought A Jane Austen Education, which shouldn’t be surprising given my feelings about Deresiewicz. Maybe he will teach me to read Austen more kindly, more attentively (Wood has succeeded at least somewhat in that respect: his discussion of free indirect speech in How Fiction Works finally gave me the tools to figure out why people like Austen). I’m still not sure that it will bring Effi Briest to life, and even if it does, it might be more like reanimating a corpse (which, as genre fiction teaches us, is replete with dangers) than interacting with a live person.

Effi Briest — Theodore Fontane, with a side of James Wood and Samuel Delany’s Paris Review interview

Despite what I wrote in this post, I got a copy of Effi Briest. And you know what? I couldn’t finish it. There were some great lines—my favorite is Effi’s father saying, “There’s nothing so good for one as a wedding, provided of course it isn’t one’s own”—but I couldn’t take the rest, even though I stopped reading the very nice introduction by Helen Chambers after realizing it was prejudicing me against the book:

The sexual dimensions of the age gap [between Effi and her husband] remain beneath the surface of this discreet and allusive novel. They are suggested, as is much that is vital in the inner action, by the symbolic texture of the narrative. Effi’s sexual inexperience at the beginning of the novel is beyond question, and the premature loss of her virginity is prefigured by the twins calling her back to the garden through a window framed by Virginia Creeper

This explains why little seems to happen, since “remain beneath the surface” feels like another phrase for “buried so deeply that you need an even dirtier mind than mine to excavate it. In a Paris Review interview, Robertson Davies says:

I do not respond quite so immediately and warmly to writers in the United States, because their concerns are different from mine and their approach to them is different from mine. They seem to be infinitely concerned with very subtle details of feeling and life. I find this exemplified, for instance, in many stories in The New Yorker where whether the family will have pumpkin pie or something else on Thanksgiving Day is a decision with infinite psychological and sexual repercussions. I take this quite seriously. I admire their subtlety—but I get so sick of it. I wish they would deal with larger themes.

With enough subtlety, substance disappears, and I love his characterization of American Thanksgivings as portrayed in stories. Anyway, Chambers also says of Effi’s husband, “It seems that after years of self-discipline and mortification of the flesh Innstetten has regulated his natural urges into a state of atrophy.” In the margin I wrote, “Yawn,” a judgment that still seems reasonable a week later. Practically the entire text of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach could fit between the end of the wedding scene on page 26 and the next paragraph, which begins, “The day after the wedding was a bright October day,” as if one of the presumably major events of Effi’s life hadn’t just happened. And I’m not talking about the wedding.

I was thinking about Effi Briest when I read Samuel Delany’s Paris Review interview in the Summer 2011 issue. He talks about two characters in his work Nova who almost have an incestuous relationship. The interviewer begins this exchange:

Did you intentionally want to make something the reader could only speculate about, rather than be certain of?

Delany: Certainly as far as the incest goes. Suggestion is a literary strategy. But when, in 1968, works like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were legal to publish and sell in this country, the age of innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space, as the hero envelops the heroine in his arms, ended. Fifteen years later, AIDS rendered them permanently obsolete.

Today, I watch seminar rooms full of graduate students misread both [Alfred] Bester and [Joseph] Conrad, because they no longer have to wonder about the possibility of such illegal elements occurring in the story and the compensating possibility of suggestion as a writerly strategy for representing sex and violence.

I am one of those graduate students, and I evidently don’t have the exquisitely tuned sex detector that pre-’68 readers might have developed. This became especially clear in a seminar on Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, when one of my professors at the University of Arizona began to point out the many euphemisms and double entendres left by James, beginning with the name “Assingham” and proceeding from there. I mostly wondered what the big fuss was about, given the modesty of the phrases in questions, but I didn’t realize how generational my readings were until I discovered the Delany interview an hour ago.

Delany is right—I don’t have a lot of tolerance of “innuendo and the coyly placed line of white space.” That doesn’t mean I want every novel to be wildly explicit, or that I want pornography to merge with literary fiction, but it does mean that a lot of older books seem coy. Like Effi Briest. Today, when McEwan’s aforementioned novel takes those white spaces and turns them into entire works of their own, it’s hard to accept the white space, or an extraordinarily “discreet and allusive novel” where Virginia Creepers (or pumpkin pie) have “infinite psychological and sexual repercussions”

I didn’t expect to have my malady so accurately and suddenly diagnosed, however, and it wasn’t until I read Delany that I was able to write this post. He makes me want to be a more careful and considerate reader. Or maybe novels do have a sense of technological progression, or something like progress, or even progress itself. James Wood speculates on the subject in his review of Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered:

Does literature progress, like medicine or engineering? Nabokov seems to have thought so, and pointed out that Tolstoy, unlike Homer, was able to describe childbirth in convincing detail. Yet you could argue the opposite view; after all, no novelist strikes the modern reader as more Homeric than Tolstoy. [. . .] Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity—both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation. The novel is peculiar in this respect, because while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions—the basic narrative grammar—of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.

If literature progresses technologically, it still doesn’t do so in quite the same way as technology: no one would use a camera from 1925 unless they were a masochist, had a historical fetish, or were trying to achieve some very peculiar artistic effect. The rest of us use digital cameras manufactured in the last five years, or phones, given the obvious advantages of convenience. But many writers from 1925 still feel quite modern—Fitzgerald, most obviously, but many others too. Yet I don’t find that much 19th Century fiction really moves me (exceptions: Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter). Contemporary writers have a greater and perhaps infinite rein to express what they need to express, and by contrast older writers do seem coy, even if this is an unfair judgment on my part—or the kind of judgment that might be tempered by age. The more I think about the idea, the more I see how others have considered it. For example, this review of William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education is bizarre because it’s like reading about myself, right down to the love for Madame Bovary:

In 1990, William Deresiewicz was on his way to gaining a Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia University. Describing that time in the opening pages of his sharp, endearingly self-effacing new book, “A Jane Austen Education,” Deresiewicz explains that he faced one crucial obstacle. He loathed not just Jane Austen but the entire gang of 19th-century British novelists: Hardy, Dickens, Eliot . . . the lot.

At 26, Deresiewicz wasn’t experiencing the hatred born of surfeit that Mark Twain described when he told a friend, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.” What Deresiewicz (who has considerable fun at the expense of his pompous younger self) was going through was the rebel phase in which Dostoyevsky rules Planet Gloom, that stage during which the best available image of marriage is a prison gate.

Sardonic students do not, as Deresiewicz points out, make suitable shrine-­tenders for a female novelist whose books, while short on wedding scenes, never skimp on proposals. Emma Bovary fulfilled all the young scholar’s expectations of literary culture at its finest; Emma Woodhouse left him cold. “Her life,” he lamented, “was impossibly narrow.” Her story, such as it was, “seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village.” Hypochondriacal Mr. Woodhouse, garrulous Miss Bates — weren’t these just the sort of bores Deresiewicz had spent his college years struggling to avoid? Maybe, he describes himself conceding, the sole redeeming feature of smug Miss Woodhouse was that she seemed to share his distaste for the dull society of Highbury.

I’m 27. Maybe I’ll have considerable fun at the expense of my pompous younger self one day.

I bought A Jane Austen Education, which shouldn’t be surprising given my feelings about Deresiewicz. Maybe he will teach me to read Austen more kindly, more attentively (Wood has succeeded at least somewhat in that respect: his discussion of free indirect speech in How Fiction Works finally gave me the tools to figure out why people like Austen). I’m still not sure that it will bring Effi Briest to life, and even if it does, it might be more like reanimating a corpse (which, as genre fiction teaches us, is replete with dangers) than interacting with a live person.

Why we need the third way: "What Are You Going to Do With That" and the need for imagination

In “What Are You Going to Do With That?,” William Deresiewicz tells the freshmen class at Stanford:

In the journey toward the success that you all hope to achieve, you have completed, by getting into Stanford, only the first of many legs. Three more years of college, three or four or five years of law school or medical school or a Ph.D. program, then residencies or postdocs or years as a junior associate. In short, an ever-narrowing funnel of specialization. You go from being a political-science major to being a lawyer to being a corporate attorney to being a corporate attorney focusing on taxation issues in the consumer-products industry. You go from being a biochemistry major to being a doctor to being a cardiologist to being a cardiac surgeon who performs heart-valve replacements.

But he goes on to point out why and how these kinds of defined professional paths—the ones high school and college students students are so often told constitute “success”—might not be optimal, for either the person on the path or society in general. If you “simply go with the flow,” you can end up merely being defined by what someone else has laid out. Perhaps not surprisingly, Deresiewicz goes on to say, “There is an alternative.” He calls it “moral imagination” and defines it this way: “Moral imagination means the capacity to envision new ways to live your life.” I would call it something else: the “third way.”

Deresiewicz’s essay shows why we need more talk about the third way: there are more options out there than further advanced schooling. Stanford in particular is a good place to be reminded of this. Obviously, Deresiewicz doesn’t say you must choose grad school or the professions, but the absence of any acknowledgement about starting your own company implies that those are the two primary choices.

I’ve similar talk. In my interview with him, Tucker Max describes the primary speech he gives at colleges:

[. . . W]hen you’re an undergrad, generally you think you can do two things. You’re gonna have to get a job after you graduate or you gotta go do more school. Because everyone who’s giving you advice or telling you how to live your life are people who’ve done one of those two things.

He describes a “third way,” with his two normal paths defined a lot like Deresiewicz’s, but in a lower register:

You don’t generally have anyone in your life who has gone out on their own and done something entrepreneurial or done something artistic or truly risky or truly taken the path less traveled, because those people [. . .] don’t work in academics. And don’t become cubicle monkeys. So what I try and explain in my speeches is that there’s a third way. Because a lot of people—I think most people—want to do something besides those two things.

A lot of people want to do something else, but that something else is, in some ways, harder to do than the normal path. Yet the people who go the third way often talk about it as being more satisfying, and the people who go the “two paths” often speak wistfully of the third—despite the difficulty one is likely to encounter. A friend wrote this to me: “I know for a fact that I’d hate [Tucker] Max’s writing, but he’s dead right about how few students are aware that they can do something artistic or creative or entrepreneurial.” Too few students are aware of this—and too few people in general are. You can consider this post a very small step in the direction of increasing awareness.

So far I’ve noted two examples. Paul Graham talks about the problem of standard paths too, in “A Student’s Guide to Startups:” “Till recently graduating seniors had two choices: get a job or go to grad school. I think there will increasingly be a third option: to start your own startup.” His answer is more defined than Deresiewicz’s or Max’s, but the very language he uses is similar. But he’s also got a way of generating the “third way” by funding startups. Instead of merely telling people to find one, he’s creating a third way for people to flow, which might be the most valuable contribution of all, at least for the technically inclined.

I think all three of these disparate writers—Deresiewicz, Max, and Graham—are pointing to a more fundamental need for the imagination necessary to exit the obvious paths that so often end up going nowhere. Of the three, Graham has done the most to institutionalize this process and make it available for others by starting Y Combinator. Max has probably done the most to be a living embodiment of an unusual third way. Deresiewicz is pointing to the possibility from within the way of a well-defined path (and the same one I’m one) from undergrad to graduate school to being a professor. Taken together, they diagnose and offer treatment for the same malady that can’t quite be identified yet comes from so many sources and has so many symptoms: Dilbert, cubicles, malaise, ennui, florescent lights, midlife crises, 20-somethings with advanced degrees working as baristas, waiters, or bartenders, essay writers.

Artistic or creative activities don’t usually come prepackaged in convenient jobs that get handed to college graduates. They get created by people who are artistic and creative, who find a way to turn what they want to do, or their inchoate ideas, into something greater than the idea itself. The “inchoate idea” is important: I suspect most people don’t entirely know what they’re doing when they find a third way. Steven Berlin Johnson has a term for this in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation: the slow hunch. This happens when something that you’ve been gnawing on slowly develops over time. Johnson describes it much more fully, of course, but a lot of my ideas in writing novels or academic work comes from slow hunches. Writing fiction isn’t an activity that really comes packaged in convenient job form: it is made by each practitioner individually. People who succeed as writers sometimes do so not through conventional publishing, but through alternate ways—as Max did with his website, or as J.A. Konrath apparently does with his blog, “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing.”

Like Deresiewicz and Max, I don’t really have a solution to the problem other than to encourage you to think imaginatively. But who’s against thinking imaginatively? Partners are probably telling their third-year associates the same thing, even as the associates put in soul-killing seventy hours weeks under those menacing florescent lights. The other part of my solution is to be aware of the problem. I’ll also channel Graham in “What You’ll Wish You’d Known” and encourage you to stay upwind:

In the graduation-speech approach, you decide where you want to be in twenty years, and then ask: what should I do now to get there? I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.

It’s not so important what you work on, so long as you’re not wasting your time. Work on things that interest you and increase your options, and worry later about which you’ll take.

Suppose you’re a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.

Flying a glider is a good metaphor here. Because a glider doesn’t have an engine, you can’t fly into the wind without losing a lot of altitude. If you let yourself get far downwind of good places to land, your options narrow uncomfortably. As a rule you want to stay upwind.

“Work on things that interest you and increase your options:” the target of Graham’s essay is nominally high school students, but it’s applicable to a much broader swath of people. Maybe you’re one. If so, however, you’ll probably read this and then go back to filling out those TPS reports. Or maybe you’ll be one of the very rare people who realize there is no speed limit and react appropriately. At least you can’t say that no one told you. At least three people have: Deresiewicz, Max, and Graham. Four if you count me, writing a meta essay.

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