In a recent article titled “Virtually Exhausted” William Deresiewicz, editor at The American Scholar, suggested that believing hard work is a way to achieve is “one of those notions that is so stupid it has to embody a deeply held belief“.
In this notion he refers to the Protestant religious system that has elevated hard work to the status of virtue which, Deresiewicz argues, has infiltrated the work ethics of America with presumably with some terrible consequences, one of them being wide spread exhaustion. According to him, working hard to reach a dream couldn’t be farther from the truth, according to Deresiewicz, because distribution of talent is “undemocratic” and hard work is futile, just an illusion of choice for the naïve masses.
This elitist view calmly dismisses any hopes that one has for changing less fortunate circumstances. It begs the question of what is talent. It must be something you are born with, something that takes you to through an Ivy League college and gives you secure employment for life. It’s a privilege that cannot be acquired through hard work.
Just last week, whilst on the other side of the planet, Gina Reinhart, the Australian mining magnate, caused a furore when she said that if you want to get wealthy “spend less time drinking, or smoking, or socialising, and more time working”. This may sound like a good tip to the wasteful, but it is nothing more unsettling than having a person that inherited a fortune of billions of dollars to give this kind of advice to the populace in general. The thousands of people, who work hard deep in the mines owned by her scratching the guts of the planet in search for minerals, don’t make themselves wealthy. They make her wealthy. In this context, the message has the opposite meaning, because the reality in the mine can be used to prove the point that hard work doesn’t make you rich, luck does.
So far, this idea of hard work does seem trivial. Who would want to labour when in the end there is nothing to celebrate, there is no change, but just more struggle when the genes won’t let you have it?
And yet, there are many who have no doubt that hard work is necessary to make it in life. Research studies show that if you concentrate your efforts through hard work you can master almost any skills. It is estimated that you need to invest ten years to achieve mastery in your chosen domain, if you put in the long hours. People who were born without such talent can succeed when initial evidence suggests otherwise. The legendary Wayne Gretzky comes to mind as a brilliant example. Against all odds, he became the best of all those who were deemed to be ‘talented’.
There is a common element of caution that we can learn from what Deresiewicz and Reinhart said: hard work without creation does not pay well.
If Deresiewicz remembers well, the core philosophy of The American Scholar is based the eponymous speech delivered almost 200 years ago. In that speech, Ralph Waldo Emerson talks brilliantly about the need for each of us to aspire to become One Man, as someone that is not subjugated to routine of his craft. For a scholar, that is to become a Man Thinking, not just “a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking”. He goes on to say “History and exact science must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office, – to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create”.
We suffer for too much hard work as a drill, not as a creation. We should question the mindless long work hours, but not the hard work driven by passion and desire to create something better. Replace the industrial factories with creative studios, repetition with innovation, and slavery with freedom.
Hard work is encouraged in schools. It is one of the character traits that are most valued as a prerequisite for individual and social improvement. Try to tell a teacher that talent is to be praised and not the effort! If we raise our children with the belief that hard work is an illusionary key to success, then our future is bleak.
This book has strengthen a perception of mine that even great journalists have a problem when they try to write non-fiction books. The Social Animal has a noble goal but the delivery is painfully dragging its ideas through a long winding story of two people who live an unhappy life. This is already a contentious point. For reasons that are not clear to me, the book is meant to describe the life of two people “who lead wonderfully fulfilling lives”. How can this be, when these two people live their lives absorbed in demanding jobs, with different ideals and that consider divorce at the age of fifty amidst desperation, bouts of alcoholism, a case of adultery, loneliness and realisation that they don’t fit each other? It is only because of a moral inner struggle that they decide to stay together, giving a strong impression that this is because there is no other practical option.
The main idea of The Social Animal is to follow two threads that are intertwined throughout the book: a story of two people that met, fell in love and decided to live together and a scientific exploration of the current status of research in human development, society, social behaviour, psychology, mind, genetics, biology and professional development that explain the way we make decisions and behave. It is a great idea, but difficult to implement.
The fundamental concept is that we make decisions at two levels: conscious awareness and subconscious. The first is the rational aspect of our behaviour, the logical thinking, the dry calculation, the methodical process by which we arrive at conclusions. David Brooks refers to this as the French Enlightenment thinking framework, “le rationalisme” personified by Voltaire and Descartes. The second level is the realm of deep unconscious, the unknown laboratory of human emotions, where feelings are born and fight against the rational thoughts from level 1 to ultimately determine how we make our decisions. This way of thinking is favoured by the British Enlightenment which affirms that in the end this is how we really decide. David Brooks has a plethora of examples of research studies that support this claim.
It may be that this is how we make decisions, with “epistemological modesty”, but it is rather hard to make sense of this book, other than just to say “hey, did you know that researchers discovered that… so and so?”. This is simply because I could not find “the hidden sources of love, character and achievement” as stated in the subtitle. I could see that hard work is necessary ingredient of success, that genetic inheritance is another asset that is good to have on your side and that being born in the richer part of society opens the door to more opportunities; but this is something that is hardly new.
There are a few interesting ideas here but they are lost in a long series of scientific explanations and popular statistics, but they lose traction because they are so disjointed, diluting any message that the book might have.
Here is one intriguing observation: we live today in a world where the cognitive load is so large it makes it more and more difficult for people from poorer parts of the society to traverse through education system to the richer side. The knowledge required is too high. David Brooks is not talking about the logical knowledge, but the emotional one which is the cultural fabric of society. This cannot be taught in a logical fashion in schools and in time it causes an increasing inequity that will lead to social tensions difficult to resolve.
The ramifications stemming from the idea that the subconscious in fact is quite rational are vast. You can choose your patch and rest assured you have in there plenty of interesting work for many many years. You could look at this from a computing perspective and think of the human brain as a sophisticated system with massive parallel processes that makes decisions in the background. Or look at this from a cognitive science perspective and try to understand the working model of the mind based on these “underground” processes. Then if you are an educator ask yourself how much of of our children formation is influenced by the education system and which parts are mostly influenced by other sources. I thought the subconscious intelligence is an important attribute defines us as a “social animal” in ways much more significant than the standard IQ. Unfortunately David Brooks did not insist on this topic. The brush he used was too broad in his attempt to cover all aspects of our lives.
Overall, I found that reading was an uneven experience as if I was traveling across the country often by a boring bus and occasionally by an exciting Ferrari. I must say, that despite this review, I love David Brooks posts in The New York Times and I look forward to read his writing.