Nov 26, 2018
Post-Fiat is in large part driven by the fear that society has become purely reactive, unable to see problems coming, form plans to counter them, and execute on those plans. One part of that is that high potential individuals are indoctrinated from a young age that rewards come exclusively when they execute someone else’s plan, leading to a generation with no grown-ups who can actually make plans. How did this happen?
When I was very young, before I could even read, I wanted to be a writer. That’s already a problem - “be a writer” as opposed to “write and publish” - but let’s ignore that for now. My parents were supportive but naturally cautious people, so while they transcribed the stories I told them and enrolled me in writing classes, they also insisted I pick a backup career. This was quality parenting: you don’t let your kid bet their entire life on being an artist, especially not at age 4.
When I was 12 I fell in love with behavioral biology and decided I would pursue that. My parents were delighted, and even more supportive than they were with writing. The sense was not only “we care because you care” but “there is a future in this.” This was abysmal parenting.
Behavioral biology is a terrible career. The win condition is you work 80 hours/week begging for scraps to run unimaginative experiments you will p-hack, while teaching undergrads who don’t want to be there, probably early in the morning. The politics are brutal, you have no choice of where to live, and maybe three people read your papers. And you have to be pretty lucky to get that. The more likely scenario is you spend 7 -10 years earning nothing as a PhD, 3 earning slightly more than nothing as a post-doc, and then flail wildly as you fail to get a professorship. Behavioral biology has stunningly few practical applications and I avoided practical biology as much as I could possibly get away with: going into industry was not an option. Behavioral biologist was a terrible career plan, arguably worse than fiction writer, because it would take so much longer to fall on my face.
Why did my parents demand a back up plan for writing but not biology? It’s not just that biology has a veil of STEM legitimacy over it, although that was clearly part of it. It’s that biology professor had a very well laid out path. There was an Authority to give me a definition of Success and all I had to do to get there was follow the steps it prescribed. And that mattered very much to them, and to me, and to a lot of the parents of my generation in my subculture. My generation was not taught to determine what we wanted and make plans to get there, it was taught to Succeed, and that success was defined externally. A series of hoops to jump through to prove your internal worth. School was the ultimate educational video game.
In Smart People Should Build Things, Andrew Yang hypothesizes that this led a generation of students (coming up on two now) to fundamentally be insecure and lack vision, and that fields like finance and consulting are taking advantage of the insecurity to feed their recruiting pipeline at a massive scale. Young adults who have always had an externally given, legible next step in front of them are suddenly forced by graduation to choose, and they choose the familiar. Duff McDonald’s The Firm further argues that, having been praised for their potential their whole life, these people are desperate to kick the can of committing to something (with the inherent chance of failing at it) down the road, which makes finance and consulting even better than medicine or pursuing a PhD. Put it together and you see that the American upper-middle class has gotten so domesticated.
So what do we do to correct this? Part of the problem is that any attempt to fix it in other people is a master’s tools/master’s house scenario. You can’t train people to reject training.
Yang’s plan, detailed in Smart People Should Build Things, is to build a recruiting pipeline and social support network akin to that used by the finance and consulting firms to get high-prestige new grads into start-ups and growth companies. To this end he built a non-profit, Venture for America. That’s great as far as it goes, but I can’t help but notice that he never justifies his belief that prestigious graduates that finance and consulting seduce are the best and the brightest. Indeed, it’s so ingrained in him he never even says it explicitly; there’s just a background assumption that the Ivy League and a few others are the only schools worth talking about. Given how much high-prestige higher ed selects for and inculcates hoop jumping, maybe that’s not the best place to look.
So what else can we do to engender critical thought and agency in others? What have you done to incubate it in yourself? Where do you look for people are smart and get things done?