A “Very Important” Message for Mr. David Brooks

Back in March David Brooks titled one of his New York Times columns “The Modesty Manifesto.” In it, he argued that over the course of a few generations American culture has shifted from an emphasis on self-effacement to one on self-enlargement — in short, that Americans now hold themselves, as individuals, in much higher regard than they once did.

Some of the supporting data that Brooks cites, both in the column itself and in various speeches and interviews he has given recently, bolster his case. Who would argue, for example, with statistics that show a growing disjuncture between the declining achievement of American students on global math tests and their persistent confidence in the excellence of their math ability? Other points that Brooks makes, such as one about how sports players are much less humble than they used to be, aren’t especially persuasive and merely elicit a knowing chuckle from readers.

One item from his column that Mr. Brooks keeps repeating on the lecture and interview circuits is more sinister. He cites polling data showing that in the 1950s 12% of American high school seniors said they were “a very important person” and that by the 1990s a whopping 80% believed that they were. Leaving aside the fact that Brooks keeps changing the date for that 80% figure (sometimes he says it’s from polling done in the 1990s, sometimes from 2005), Brooks is refusing to look under the surface of this seemingly alarming number.

What Mr. Brooks would like us to assume — and, judging from the reactions he gets from live crowds, what we do assume — is that there has been a roughly sevenfold increase in the percentage of high school seniors who think they’re more important than other people. If, however, you reflect for more than the ten seconds that Brooks takes to manufacture dismay among his audience, you see that the question “Are you a very important person?” doesn’t mean the same thing today that it did in the 1950s.

Back then students are likely to have viewed this question as one about their worth relative to that of other people. Nowadays most students would interpret it to mean “Do you have intrinsic value as an individual?” Sure, the very fact that young people would now translate the question differently reflects a cultural shift. But it’s a shift in their awareness of the value that all people have, themselves included — not in how many of them see themselves as better than other folks. The answer “Yes, I am a very important person” can now exist side-by-side with the belief “And so is everyone else.” It is simply not the same type of statement as “I believe that my math skills are better than average.” One is about intrinsic worth; the other is about relative worth. The polling question “Are you a very important person?” may not have changed in half a century, but its cultural meaning has. Comparing responses to that question across generations is an apples-and-oranges proposition — indeed, it amounts to a distortion of the facts.

Brooks, of all people, should understand this. After all, his latest book, The Social Animal, is a study of how unconscious factors shape human behavior and biases. Brooks has, in fact, begun to build much of his reputation as an intellectual on his ability to tease out how people’s beliefs and values are strongly influenced by factors that lie just under the surface. In both that role and his one as a political commentator, he likes to cast himself as a sober, straightforward thinker who rejects the hyperbole that so many of his fellow idea-mongerers routinely use. I can’t help but conclude, then, that Brooks’ assertion in his self-proclaimed “manifesto” — that the statistic about “very important” high school seniors is one of the smoking guns in the crime of American immodesty — is totally disingenuous. Smart, clear-headed people know when they’re twisting data to their advantage.

Am I outraged by this petty fraud? Not really. This kind of chicanery is now a given in American political and media discourse, as Mr. Brooks himself has often rightly pointed out. It’s just especially disappointing from someone, even someone I frequently don’t agree with, who likes to cloak himself in the mantle of an honest, modest alternative to the lying, carping chatterboxes who really do think they’re more important than everyone else.

When the Best-Case Scenario Is to Prevent the Worst

photo from portlandonline.com

A worker stays late on a Tuesday to avoid a hellishly busy Wednesday. A family forgoes a vacation to dodge delinquency on debts. A business owner cancels a scheduled wage increase to avert layoffs. Facing down a dilemma in which all feasible outcomes are bad is no epic saga. It happens every day. The healthy response is to motivate yourself to soberly take steps to mitigate the damage. There’s no triumph in the end result, but there’s a sense of relief and, occasionally, even satisfaction in having avoided outright disaster. In the lives of individual Americans, such decisions are reality, plain and simple.

At a national level, however, choices like these tend to be deferred, sidetracked, or abandoned altogether. Collective aspirations demand vision, vigor, and ultimately victory. Resignation and realism are killjoys. But increasingly, the U.S. is confronting large problems that have no chance of being conquered completely and ending in jubilation. In a variety of domains — the national debt, energy, the environment, public health, among others — recurrent, if not permanent, crisis is the new reality. The only sensible response is for citizens to take the difficult measures that are necessary to avert catastrophe, knowing full well that the best-case scenario is still a grim one. But how do you sell that kind of cruel gruel to a nation bloated on Cheetos, chips, and light sweet crude?

The gulf between what we expect and what we can realistically have is wider than it’s ever been in America. A course correction of unprecedented magnitude is in order. Casting the net wider and thinking bigger and bolder are, however, not the ways to take on the daunting challenge. Only in thinking small can substantive things be achieved when the aims are, by definition, not bloated.

The solution is to be found in the spirit of mundane, individual acts of sacrifice that people understand because they’ve been there. It’s familiar psychological territory, and most folks have found ways to make it not so grim. What they’ve never explicitly been asked to do is to downsize the most unrealistic of their national expectations — in short, to find relief, satisfaction, and maybe even pride in coming together not to achieve the impossible but to temper the threat of the worst-case scenario, much as they do in their own lives.

Consider the person who weatherproofs and fortifies the structure of her house to prevent the worst of the havoc that a storm could wreak. If the storm is powerful, some degree of damage is inevitable, and the homeowner knows that. The envisioned best-case scenario is no picnic, yet in putting in the time, energy, and money necessary to avert the worst, she can find satisfaction, peace of mind, and even pleasure in the preparations. “I’ve done what I can” fills the belly like a hearty oatmeal breakfast, even if it’s not tantalizing to the tongue.

Imagine this kind of sensible resolve applied to threats on a larger scale. We know, for instance, that widespread coastal flooding is coming as polar ice melts, even if carbon emissions are halted immediately. Instead of continuing to build recklessly on waterfronts, why not cast it as both a national and a local priority to rethink and redraw the boundaries between land and sea, thereby reducing the chances of a future worst-case scenario? There’s a sense of mission to be found in such planning. Yes, the message must be delivered with a calm voice and the plans executed with steady hands so that resolve does not balloon into alarm. But by drawing parallels with the individual choices that we all routinely make to avert disaster, we can stiffen our collective resolve into a strong national backbone.

Not all of these efforts need to be universal, of course. Even within narrower interests, such as that of political parties, best-case scenarios that nonetheless remain grim can be motivators. Take, for example, midterm Congressional elections in which the party that holds the presidency almost inevitably loses seats. That knowledge, once the sole province of experts, has trickled down to the masses. The awareness now itself inhibits turnout among voters who affiliate themselves with the president. Many assume, “We can’t win anyway, so why bother voting?” Indeed, the best-case scenario probably is a modest loss, but neglecting to act in the face of that loss ensures a worst-case blowout victory by the other side.

“Vote late on Tuesday to avoid a hellish Wednesday” is a message most people can grasp, even if it’s not as thrilling as the promise of a heavenly win. Seeing collective aims through the lens of a common-sense need to “do what you can” in the face of an inevitably negative outcome can achieve more than pundits and political operatives suspect. But, true, it won’t achieve victory. No horns will blare. The aims of this vision are not lofty.

It is Tuesday. I plan to work late. Wednesday will not be paradise, but if I have any say in the matter, it won’t be hell either.

Your Livelihood Is Subsidized — by Immigrants

Another midterm election season has begun, and with it another wave of scapegoating immigrants for the ills that burden us. It’s practically a staple of American politics every fourth spring and summer, a perfect setup for the fall. This year the focus is an Arizona immigration law that soon will allow police in that state to accost, and demand proof of citizenship from, people they suspect are in the U.S. illegally. Because, surely, those confrontations will unburden Arizona of its problems and make it a much more pleasant place to be.

Last time around, in 2006, the big issue was an amnesty provision of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Had the bill become law, it would have permitted immigrants who were in the U.S. illegally for more than five years to apply for citizenship after paying fines and back taxes. Critics of the legislation won that debate in part by, once again, painting immigrants as a “burden on the system.” At the time, National Public Radio broadcast a 3-minute essay by journalist Richard Rodriguez in which he, unassumingly and poetically, undercut that specious argument by simply thanking immigrants for the long list of things they do for us as a nation every day, at an extremely low cost. Rodriguez’s naming of these deeds, one by one, was chilling — and worth a listen even these four years later.

My immigrant students work in jobs similar to those Rodriguez listed in his 2006 radio piece. They lift hospital patients out of their beds and clean their bodies; load and unload chicken legs, beef tenderloin, and Kashi GoLean from the backs of trucks; scrub down homes and offices and hotel rooms and the cages of lab rats; and click their heels and smile at the people they serve on hand and foot, day and night. And they do it, quickly and efficiently, for pay that most people reading this blog would never consider accepting for such self-effacing work, perhaps for any work at all. In short, their labor subsidizes our lifestyles. While we work for ourselves, they in effect work for us, all the while demanding little for what they do. The economy in general — and your livelihood in particular — rests on their backs, literally. Yet their labor goes largely unseen — and when it is noticed, unappreciated.

In the little free time that these immigrants have, many attend school to learn the English language; the archaic English system of measurement that we refuse to discard in favor of more-sensible meters and liters, which they already know; and the contradictions of our culture and politics, which insult them in more ways than you can imagine. It’s an enormous amount for anyone to absorb, and especially hard for students like one I’ll call Teresa, who works the overnight shift in a hospital, then comes to my math class at 9 AM, and finally returns home to care for her children and an aging father. When I asked Teresa when she sleeps, she said, “On the bus sometimes.”

The schools that serve students like Teresa tend to operate on shoestring budgets. Most are staffed by highly skilled but undercompensated teachers who have made this work a vocation as they try to earn a real living on the side — and who often don’t get any pay for up to half the hours they spend at school. All this unrecognized labor is a continuous stimulus for the national economy, as it makes the grossly underpaid immigrant workforce even more productive. The effect is to dramatically reduce, not increase, the country’s economic burdens.

Critics, of course, point to the small percentage of immigrants who commit crimes or who game the system. After all, naysayers can always find isolated counterexamples. But I can tell them, from the front lines, that on balance they are getting much more for their dollars — no, their pennies — than they ever would suspect. The number of immigrants, most of them here legally (but, yes, some illegally), who diligently do our dirty work, in the literal sense of that phrase, is staggering. And, no, many of them will not be counted by the U.S. Census; they exist — and they work — nonetheless.

Go ahead, Arizona, apprehend that “burden” you see on the public street. Maybe you’ll actually lock up and deport one of the dregs who drag us down. But it’s much more likely that you’ll burden yourself and the rest of us by handcuffing the single biggest subsidy of our precarious economy. For every physical arrest that you make, you effectively demoralize and disable thousands of hardworking immigrants who look on and imagine themselves in your shackles. Keep arresting productivity in its tracks like that and you will burden our entire nation so that it falls, quickly and efficiently, to its knees.

Why Talented People Quit

What you can learn from Senator Evan Bayh’s decision not to seek re-election

Since I quit my full-time job in late 2008, I’ve found myself in many ad hoc conversations about the pros and cons of quitting, very few them initiated by me. I’m still amazed by the number of people whose brains are bubbling with a strong desire to quit — and who, at times, need to let it burst out for someone willing to lend an ear. Not surprisingly, dissatisfaction of one sort or another is usually at the root of an urge to quit. I’m most intrigued by the folks who are exceptionally good at their jobs but are still dissatisfied enough to want to bolt.

Talented people tend to be bothered by an inability to effect change, at least in a tangible enough way that their day-to-day jobs feel rewarding. The nature of the desired reward varies considerably, from making a real difference within the walls of the organization to witnessing the greater social influence of the work. Whatever the scope of their mission, many of these quit-minded people have a clear vision and good leadership skills but find themselves confronted with institutional obstacles, often in the workplace culture, that can’t be surmounted within a reasonable time frame. So the personal choice becomes: Get out now, or run the risk of languishing so long that I end up internalizing and reinforcing the culture.

A scenario like that recently played out in the U.S. Senate with Evan Bayh’s announcement that he would not seek re-election. Bayh is a former two-term governor of Indiana whose leadership skills are obvious to anyone who has followed his career and, by all accounts, to those who know him personally. Yet in the face of now much-discussed institutional and cultural obstacles in the Senate, Bayh says he found himself unable to make enough of a daily difference in people’s lives to justify another six-year term. Whatever your view of Bayh’s politics, the authenticity of his statements on this point, both written and in interviews, is clear. You can hear it plainly in his recent conversation with Charlie Rose (start at minute 16).

Despite the peculiarities of the U.S. Senate, Bayh’s personal dilemma seems remarkably universal to me. Institutional progress is necessarily slow, but sometimes too slow for talented people to withstand. A particular high performer might have the skills to lead change but hasn’t yet reached a leadership position, as Bayh (in only his second Senate term) has not. And leading without authority, though possible in the right context, has very real limits. Probably too many limits for someone who’s already governed a state, or even for someone who has previously led effectively on a much smaller scale. For many talented would-be quitters, there’s comfort to be found in Bayh’s example.

The senator’s situation also offers a useful reminder about the best way, if you do decide to leave an institution, to make your decision known — namely, with grace, equanimity, and an eye toward the future. That doesn’t necessarily mean having another job lined up (Bayh doesn’t at this juncture, and I didn’t when I quit). But it does mean appreciating the continuity between one chapter of your life and the next, as I’ve discussed in “How to Quit Your Job with Style” and other posts. Feeling centered in that way makes the grace part easier. Of course, even with a bright future in sight, the temptation to grandstand can still be strong — witness Sarah Palin’s resignation from the governorship of Alaska. In short, if you find you can’t explain your decision to other people without sounding confused, beleaguered, or vengeful, you may not be ready to take the plunge.

That all said, there’s no credible rulebook for how to quit the right way. You’ll find information out there that masquerades as “research,” even with the names of revered institutions attached to it. But besides reflecting honestly on your own situation (that’s the vital piece), the best you can probably do is to read about and observe others who have thought critically about their own dilemmas. Tips can be a tyranny, as I (a sometimes tip writer) have admitted. It’s the indirect stuff — what you glean intuitively from the space between the lines of explicit advice — that offers the best guidance. In that respect, Evan Bayh’s account is just one point of departure. Listen to his story, between the words, and give yourself a chance to brew before you bubble over.