David Brooks’s Five Lies can empower us, one truth at a time
Before I’d finished reading Five Lies Our Culture Tells, I wanted to send it to everyone I know. David Brooks had clearly articulated my reasons for leaving a profession I’d worked so hard to join. (The article summarizes some of his new book The Second Mountain: The quest for a moral life.)
Given that higher education, business schools in particular, rely on and reinforce these lies, it was hard for me to pretend, to lie about the lies not being lies.
These lies (myths if you prefer, and I’m getting to them) have seeped into America’s water supply for so long, it’s hardly fair to pick on higher education. Or to assume that most educators and staff consciously choose to drink them down. But make no mistake: Education does Corporate America’s bidding. Whether there’s enough money for 2.5 percent merit increases or clean classrooms, the amount of corporate funding for public research and influence over curricula is staggering.
Administrators don’t push back too hard. They can’t afford to. Nor can their faculty afford the freedom to communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression or job loss. A little erosion of academic freedom can seem a small sacrifice when program funding, endowments and naming opportunities abound.
I wish I had a dime for every time I heard the term “professional” used in lieu of “political” or “quiet” or “agreeable”. As in, “She needs to be more professional in how she comes across.”
Professional is code for not stirring shit up. And by shit, I mean acknowledging that cultural lies exist. And that they’re passing for truth.
I tried my professional best. During corporate and big donor visits, it helped to pretend I was in a movie. But I didn’t pretend with students. And every once in awhile, when I assumed that those bright, blithe kids weren’t interested in questioning what they were fed (your brand is everything, people treat you as you train them to), one of them would prove me wrong by holding the lie up to the light.
The Five Lies
1. Career success is fulfilling
This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.
I see it as a hamster wheel or the “come on, kitty kitty” described by Alan Watts in Music and Life. After the AP classes, the perfect resume, the six-figure salary: You’ve arrived! Soon followed by inevitable letdown.
Brooks says, “The truth is… if you build your life around [success], your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.”
Of course, the hamster wheel is only available to those with enough privilege, access to loans, or luck to get their educational ticket punched. Not all beckoned kitties are able to follow the carrot when they’re malnourished or overwhelmed by the sticks.
And even if we were to imagine all Americans healthy, eager, and equally able to be herded, a career will not help us discover our life’s meaning. A career requires time and focus, usually demanding time away from those we love. Careers are simply how one or more jobs hang together over the course of our lives. What we do within the confines of each job can be meaningful, but the work cannot love us back.
2. I can make myself happy
As with education in general, I’m dubious about individualism. After years of studying social and organizational cultures, I’m aware of both its empowering and disabling aspects. Self-reliance is a noble value, yet it presumes that we have roughly equal access to food, shelter, education, jobs and mobility. Bootstrapping only works when you have boots that fit your feet.
Brooks points out the “lie of self-sufficiency,” the pretend belief that I accomplish happiness by myself. If I can do x or buy y, then I’ll be happy.
I’m unaware of any deathbed lamentations on not having acquired enough stuff. If you watched Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, you’d remember he talked a good deal about enabling others’ dreams. What you might not know is that he said “help others” or “helping others” 16 times.
Happiness is not simply found within. As Brooks reminds us, “It is found in the giving and receiving of care.”
It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.
An invaluable lesson I learned just before I left academia is that no one benefits when I communicate from my shallows. More than a few of my students inspired me to dig deeper and become more vulnerably me, which pointed me away from higher education and toward more community work.
3. Life is an individual journey
This lie is related to ‘I can make myself happy,’ and the one that gives us the false notion that “freedom is the absence of restraint.”
Brooks says that in reality those who live best tie themselves down:
They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem and get called out of themselves by a deep love.
Two years ago I learned that my college wouldn’t support a position I believed we needed: a faculty liaison to connect business students with community leaders through service-learning projects. My idea was to expand students’ work experience (beyond corporate internships) to include non-profits in return for earned credit hours. Other benefits included learning how to work with limited resources on local issues, and the intrinsic reward of helping to improve one’s community.
I no longer wanted a job simply about me or my teaching. I felt less and less comfortable inside my business school silo, especially in a city with 40% poverty. Just as I learned my dream job wouldn’t materialize, a writer for the college’s slick magazine asked me: What do you do when you’re stuck in a career or job slump? I apparently gave this answer:
I’ve had several careers, and the feeling about where to go next has usually come from the community. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I need to think, ‘What can I do for others today?’
I was surprised to see it in print. As I read my own quote, it seemed to reveal its purpose. Three months later, I gave my notice.
4. You have to find your own truth
This is what Brooks calls “You do you!” It is the privatization of meaning… everybody gets to choose…
The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to [these communities] and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.
Brooks is right when he describes how most of us (who do ‘me’) end up with a few vague moral feelings but no sense of purpose. In fact, how, especially, are teens and young adults supposed to figure out their truth? Especially when:
- A few people with power, prestige, or personal connection tell them what to believe.
- We are increasingly more insulated and isolated. Technology exacerbates these conditions (have you looked around a campus, restaurant or any public space, lately?) and our media — most of it — thrives on promoting fear and divisiveness.
- The social-emotional guidance some of us received during K-12 is simply not available to millions of American students. As humans, we need time to understand our existence, knowledge, matter, values, reason, mind, and language — the content of philosophy.
Philosophy is not a substitute for religion. What leading a moral life may look like (while still retaining choice), and how morality differs from being lawful or ethical, is missing in education, business, and society at large.
5. Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people
This lie blatantly challenges America’s liberty and justice for all but we all know there’s more or less liberty and justice depending on who you are (i.e., what you or your parents are worth).
Although we adore a good rags-to-riches story, I think the truth is this: We love immigrants and native-born underdogs once they become rich, famous, and powerful. That’s when we fully adopt them. The same was true of the Irish, Italians, and Jews at Ellis Island. But this was never true of millions of African ancestors who disembarked from ships during the Middle Passage.
The message of meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you.
The Takeaway: A Simple Syllogism
What I appreciate most about Brooks’s piece is that he widens our lens beyond faulty institutions and systems. Name something you don’t like about America and chances are it involves a behemoth, faceless institution: our political system, education, the economy, health care, welfare, Wall Street.
Instead, he gives us something we can (and do) own. He challenges us when he posits that our biggest problems are societal: they involve us. The real takeaway, then, is an opportunity. One that can be expressed as a syllogism:
We live in a culture (like any culture) that is based, in part, on lies.
We are each part of, and therefore responsible for, our culture.
We can change our culture.
How is this possible? Culture is vast, pervasive. But culture is merely the way we do things in various contexts. It changes. All the time.
Culture is certainly influenced by leadership, but it’s not entirely foisted on us. On the other hand, it’s not always optional. We adapt quickly — one of our best and sometimes worst features. (Do you ever find yourself reaching for your phone because everyone else is hunched over theirs?)
The fact that each of us may be complicit in perpetuating a culture that doesn’t always tell the truth actually gives me hope.
We are more powerful than we are taught to believe.
When you tell one person that, in fact, their happiness doesn’t depend on a high-paying career or you reassure them that they alone cannot make themselves happy, you help them hold a lie up to the light.
We don’t have to quit our jobs or start a revolution to improve our society. As its members, we have both the right and the responsibility to stop pretending. To no longer lie about lies not being lies.