David Brooks wrote a column for the New York Times recently titled “It’s Not About You.” It is a rebuttal to commencement-season addresses that urge young people to follow their passion, pursue their dreams, and, above all, do what makes them happy. “This is the litany of expressive individualism,” Brooks warns, and “this mantra misleads on nearly every front.”
Especially this year, he says, we are conscious of the many ways in which this year’s graduating class has been ill served by their elders. They enter a bad job market – the hangover from decades of excess. And even more important, their lives have been perversely structured. “This year’s graduates are members of “the most supervised generation in American history. Through their childhoods and teenage years, they have been monitored, tutored, coached and honed to an unprecedented degree. Yet upon graduation they will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured.”
College students are raised in an environment that demands one set of navigational skills, and they are then cast out into a different environment requiring a different set of skills, which they have to figure out on their own.
The most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life, Brooks says. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.
“Today’s grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life. But, of course, as they age, they’ll discover that the tasks of a life are at the center. Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”
Brooks’ column echoes the themes of Victor Frankl, who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” – named one the 10 most influential books ever published in the United States.
“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Brooks observes that when all is said and done, “It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most.”