Monday, May 18, 2015

Advice to Millennials

-- By Tom Phillips

Many years ago, when I was 17, I remember telling my girlfriend in a panicked tone – I’ve gotta figure out something I can be great at – the world’s best.    It was beginning to sink in that my pro basketball dreams were going nowhere, and I needed a substitute.  What could it be?  Acting?  No, she said, not acting.  

A few years later I took my confusion to a favorite professor, who must have been feeling cynical that day.  What can I be, I pleaded.  His advice was to become the world’s leading expert in a field not many people were interested in – Spanish cookery, for example.  I scoffed at that.  Soon, I set out for San Francisco, where I hoped to launch my career as an idolized folk-singer. 

Fast-forward thirty years or so to middle age, when a colleague of mine, a celebrated TV journalist, asked me what I was doing with myself.   I described my modest position as a newswriter, and he looked at me in alarm.  “That’s a wasted life!” he said.   

Wounded, I rallied.  Wait a minute – That’s not all I do.  I play music, I teach, I’m a minister’s spouse, a father of many.  He quickly apologized, but I could see where his values lay.  He felt that anyone with any talent should use it to the utmost – and not let other, lesser goals stand in his way. This fellow had dropped out of college to pursue journalism, his health was awful and his personal life was an unholy mess.  But he loved his work, and he was very famous, and rich. 

I think of these exchanges because recently a 16-year-old granddaughter of mine repeated, almost verbatim, my teenage panic speech:  I have to find something I’m great at!  Volunteering in a hospital had soured her on the medical field, so she needed a substitute.  What could it be?  Acting? 

The world is awash in bad advice these days, and has been for some time -- maybe since the dawn of the industrial revolution, when the one-trick pony entered the ring, and people began to hear that they should decide early what they want to “be,” and narrow their focus.  The new role models were industrial tycoons, or scientists in search of a cure, or mad artists, or fabulously wealthy financiers. Today we admire relentless entrepreneurs like Mark Zukerberg, pasty zillionaires like Warren Buffett, super-athletes like Tom Brady and Tiger Woods, and actors and rock stars who barely went to high school.  They’re all great at something.  

It was not always thus.   Back in ancient times, the goal of education was “mens sana in corpore sano” -- a sound mind in a sound body -- and learning was physical as well as mental.  And the ideal was not greatness or “expertise” in one subject, but a broad competency – the ability to recognize the soundness of an idea in almost any field of knowledge.  Up until modern times an educated person was able to move between fields of endeavor – applying knowledge of the arts and sciences to create, to invent, to do battle, to think and act across the whole range of human activity.   Such “renaissance men” are rare today, but they still exist.

A few people I admire, because they can do more than one thing well:

Cincinnatus:  A Roman soldier and statesman whose main vocation was agriculture.  When the Romans needed a military ruler to save them, they would call for Cincinnatus, and after his victory, he would return to the farm.  “Cincinnatus at the plow,” means someone who serves his nation without making a career out of it. 

Bill Bradley:  A world-class athlete and a distinguished politician.  An all-American basketball player at Princeton, he delayed turning pro and went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.  Then he returned and won an NBA championship with the New York Knicks.  He went on to serve three terms as U-S Senator from New Jersey, and ran for President in 2000. 

Noam Chomsky:  A philosopher who revolutionized the theory of linguistics, and a radical critic of U-S foreign policy.   He came to Columbia University one day in the 1980s, taught a seminar in linguistics, then crossed the campus to deliver a speech on foreign affairs.  I didn’t agree with all his ideas, but I admired his ability and willingness to wade all the way into two separate seas.   

Elizabeth Warren:   Women haven’t had the opportunity to become renaissance men until recently.  Warren may show the way – a law professor who became a consumer advocate, now a U-S Senator from Massachusetts, maybe our first woman president.     

And here’s one to shock you:    
Ronald Reagan:   Sports announcer, movie actor, union leader, conservative spokesman, Governor of California, President of the United States.   I didn’t agree with Reagan’s ideas either, but I admired his ability to use his skills and knowledge across a range of fields.   In his Hollywood years he was President of the Screen Actors Guild.  When he turned to national politics, the key to his success was the classical art of rhetoric, of which he was a master.  Addressing the nation on TV, Reagan would read his lines rapidly and clearly.  His voice was deep and sure, his pronunciation perfect, his emphasis right in every sentence.   His emotions were always evident, but always in check, under control.   Even if you disagreed, something in you was convinced by this fellow. 

Contrast that with the presidents of this century, who can barely talk.  Obama is hailed as a good speaker, but this only shows how far the art of rhetoric has fallen.  He whines, and reads a script in a stilted manner, distorting the articles “the” and “a” into THEE and AYY.   And let’s not even mention George W. Bush.   These guys know nothing but politics, they don’t bring anything to the table from anywhere else.

 It’s a benighted age, kids.  But you Millennials can turn it around.   Don’t narrow your focus, broaden it.  Shun the experts and their specialties, and learn to distinguish sense from nonsense across a wide range of fields.  With a sound mind in a sound body, and sound judgment rooted in critical thinking, you can stand up to all kinds of experts – doctors, lawyers, economists, politicians – hold your own, and more.  You’ll actually have an advantage over the experts, who can only think in their own terms, inside their own box.  And you can have not one profession, but several.        

What’s more, life doesn’t have to center on work – your personal life is more important.  That's where your learning and your values really count, in your personal relationships.  To me, being a good husband, father, grandfather, teacher, means having something of value to give.  It’s love, of course.  But it’s also knowledge – the kind of knowledge that’s not just useful in some specialized field, but across all of life.   And you don’t get that by “narrowing your focus.”  

Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”   
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