Despite the economy, 2011 graduates shouldn't abandon enthusiasm. Their deep, serious desires might be what saves them.
As the high school and college graduates of 2011 head out into the world (or back to their parents' homes, as the case may be), one could forgive them for feeling a bit confused. On the one hand, they've just been told at commencement exercises that the world is theirs to make and shape, that they should follow their dreams and passions, and that they are our hope for the future. On the other hand, they've also been told that the job market is dismal, that they'd better get serious about picking a place to live and a field where they can find a job, and that they'd better not set their expectations too high.
Don Peck, deputy managing editor at The Atlantic, wrote a piece earlier this year listing the obstacles facing graduates in poor economic times and cautioning them about taking time in their early- and mid-twenties to explore instead of getting serious about a career. "The window for getting onto a good track, arguably, is narrower than it used to be," he said.
New York Times columnist David Brooks went further than that. In a column last week, he argued that finding your passion and pursuing your dreams was something of a narcissistic endeavor, anyway.
"College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities," Brooks wrote. "But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to." Brooks also cautioned against what he called the "misleading mantra" of "expressive individualism" that encourages graduates to "find their passion and then pursue their dreams."
If I were a 22-year-old reading all this, the whole notion of adulthood would seem like a prison sentence worth trying to avoid. But more importantly, the entire premise upon which all this advice is based is false.
Passion, despite how often we use the term to tout company commitment or extol romantic excitement, is often misunderstood or confused with other motivations. Many people view dreams and passion exactly as Brooks painted it: as a hopelessly idealistic, selfish, or irresponsible choice that is diametrically opposed to commitment to others, responsibility, security, or success. But I have spent the past year and a half researching a book about passion and people who follow passionate paths in life, and nothing I've found backs up that premise or belief. Indeed, I would argue that passion is one of the most important elements in any effort to improve a community, build something of value in the world, and even survive tough times or a daunting economy. The fact that it also tends to lead to a sense of fulfillment within an individual is certainly one of its benefits—but it's not the driving force that compels someone down the passion road.
That's not to say that passion doesn't have its costs or risks. Passion is a very complex force that has many faces. But if we're going to throw the word around so much, and either extol graduates to follow it or caution them to steer clear of it, it's worth clarifying some common misconceptions about what passion is ... and isn't.
1. Passion is not the same thing as drive, ambition, greed, lust, or pursuit of hedonistic pleasure. While all of those things are powerful motivators, they operate differently than passion. Ambition, lust, greed, and pleasure are focused on getting external recognition or reward or satisfying one's own fleeting, narcissistic desires. Passion is a far more serious and far deeper motivator that compels one forward through hard work, sacrifice, and sometimes superhuman effort to accomplish a goal one views as important—not because of any external status or reward, but because it matters to the person pursuing it.
2. Passion is not incompatible with commitment and community. People pursuing passionate endeavors often speak of how "fulfilling" they find their work. But fulfillment isn't necessarily selfish. Fulfillment comes from a sense that what one does has a purpose, or generates a sense of meaning in one's life. And purpose and meaning rarely come from a life spent pursuing external rewards of money, status, power, or even hedonistic pleasure. It comes from building something of value, or having impact, or finding richness and art along a life path that has depth and significance.
To be sure, there are those whose passions lead them to make choices whose costs are borne by their family members. But there are also those whose passion leads them to make tremendous individual sacrifices for the sake of those around them. After all, passion, at its core, is an inspirational fire that is lit within a person by a vision of an alternative potential future—something other than what "is," something that, if he or she has the courage to pursue it, could become real. That vision might be personal, as with a romantic relationship or a dream of becoming a successful musician. But it can just as easily be a vision of a wrong righted, a community restored, a child healed, or a new and better piece of technology or scientific knowledge.
What's more, passion is all about commitment. To make a vision of an alternative future possible or real requires a tremendous amount of effort, with no guarantee of success. Passion, therefore, both requires and engenders commitment, almost above all else. Indeed, one of the reasons passion is so important in any transformative endeavor is because it is the element that keeps someone going when others would give up.
"Passion is essential to success," one Silicon Valley entrepreneur told me, "because passion is what leads to perseverance—especially when the dark times come. Anyone can have character when times are good. It's when times get tough that you need passion. Because that's what inspires you to keep going, to persevere. And without perseverance, you can't achieve anything."
3. In other words, passion is not a luxury that needs to be jettisoned in tough economic times. It is the most essential force a person can bring to a challenging job market ... not only because we tend to do our best when we're passionate about what we're doing, but also because passion is what inspires a person to keep pushing to find a way forward, no matter how tough the circumstances.
4. Passion is rarely found in a vacuum. Few people have a fire lit within themselves by sitting alone, staring at their navels. Passion comes most often from exploring and engaging with the world and imagining things that don't yet exist, but that inspire you to wonder, as Robert Kennedy once said ... why not? And beyond that, finding one of those possibilities that lights such a fire inside you that you will persevere through the challenges, effort, and dark nights to try to make it real.
So when we urge graduates to pursue dreams and passions, we are not telling them to satisfy selfish desires and neglect everyone else. We are challenging them to go explore the world and find something so compelling that they will dedicate their best energies to pursuing it. We do this knowing that the passionate roads are far from the easiest paths that they could take in life. Far easier to pursue a "steady" predetermined path or career that they will spend judging their accomplishments in dollars and counting the days until retirement. So why pursue the more challenging roads that are built and inspired by passion? Because that is how you save communities and transform the world. It's also the strongest weapon you can have for surviving tough times and standing out from the crowd.
Psychiatrist Victor Frankl, an Austrian Jew who survived four concentration camps in World War II, discovered that those who best survived the camps were the people who had a passionate reason they felt they needed to survive: some unfinished work or commitment to others that compelled them to find a way to stay alive. Someone who "knows the 'why' of [their] existence," Frankl concluded, "will be able to bear almost any 'how.'"
So if we encourage graduates to go in search of something that inspires that kind of commitment and passion within them, it's because on some level, we understand that truth. And we would wish them that strength, that courage, and that ability to imagine and work toward not only a meaningful life but also a better world.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
As the public’s fear and loathing surge, the frontrunner’s durable candidacy has taken a dark turn.
MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina—All politicians, if they are any good at their craft, know the truth about human nature.
Donald Trump is very good, and he knows it better than most.
Trump stands alone on a long platform, surrounded by a rapturous throng. Below and behind him—sitting on bleachers and standing on the floor—they fill this city’s cavernous, yellow-beige convention center by the thousands. As Trump will shortly point out, there are a lot of other Republican presidential candidates, but none of them get crowds anything like this.
Trump raises an orange-pink hand like a waiter holding a tray. “They are not coming in from Syria,” he says. “We’re sending them back!” The crowd surges, whistles, cheers. “So many bad things are happening—they have sections of Paris where the police are afraid to go,” he continues. “Look at Belgium, the whole place is closed down! We can’t let it happen here, folks.”
Retailers are experimenting with a bold new strategy for the commercial high holiday: boycotting themselves.
It starts with a scene of touch football in the yard. Next, a woman and a girl, cooking together in the kitchen. “Imagine a world,” a soothing voice intones, “where the only thing you have to wrestle for on Thanksgiving is the last piece of pumpkin pie, and the only place we camped out was in front of a fire, and not the parking lot of a store.” And, then, more scenes: a man, cuddling with kids on a couch. An older woman, rolling pie dough on the counter. A fire, crackling in the fireplace. Warmth. Wine. Togetherness. Laughter.
It’s an ad, unsurprisingly, but it’s an ad with a strange objective: to tell you not to buy stuff. Or, at least, to spend a day not buying stuff. “At T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods, we’re closed on Thanksgiving,” the spot’s velvet-voiced narrator informs us, “because family time comes first.” And then: more music. More scenes of familiar/familial delights. More laughter. More pie. The whole thing concludes: “Let’s put more value on what really matters. This season, bring back the holidays—with T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods.”
A yearlong investigation of Greek houses reveals their endemic, lurid, and sometimes tragic problems—and a sophisticated system for shifting the blame.
One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass and blast it into the sweet night air. And perhaps it was an excellent idea. What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket. What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
An entire industry has been built on the premise that creating gourmet meals at home is simple and effortless. But it isn’t true.
I write about food for a living. Because of this, I spend more time than the average American surrounded by cooking advice and recipes. I’m also a mother, which means more often than not, when I return from work 15 minutes before bedtime, I end up feeding my 1-year-old son squares of peanut-butter toast because there was nothing in the fridge capable of being transformed into a wholesome, homemade toddler meal in a matter of minutes. Every day, when I head to my office after a nourishing breakfast of smashed blueberries or oatmeal I found stuck to the pan, and open a glossy new cookbook, check my RSS feed, or page through a stack of magazines, I’m confronted by an impenetrable wall of unimaginable cooking projects, just sitting there pretending to be totally reasonable meals. Homemade beef barbacoa tacos. Short-rib potpie. “Weekday” French toast. Make-ahead coconut cake. They might as well be skyscraper blueprints, so improbable is the possibility that I will begin making my own nut butters, baking my own sandwich bread, or turning that fall farmer’s market bounty into jars of homemade applesauce.
America loves its freeways. After the 1956 Federal Highway Bill created the pathway for a41,000 mile interstate highway system, states and cities jockeyed for the funding to build ever-more extensive networks of pavement that could carry Americans quickly between cities. Sometimes, they built these highways right in the middle of cities, displacing communities and razing old buildings and homes.
“This was a program which the twenty-first century will almost certainly judge to have had more influence on the shape and development of American cities, the distribution of population within metropolitan areas and across the nation as a whole, the location of industry and various kinds of employment opportunities,”Daniel Moynihan wrote in 1970 about the federal program that built these thousands of miles of highways.
Mary Beard’s sweeping history is a new read of citizenship in the ancient empire.
A british college student named Megan Beech recently published a poetry collection called When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard. Beech is not alone in her admiration for Beard, who was for a time the only female classics lecturer at Cambridge University and has since become the most prominent representative of a field once associated with dusty male privilege. In 2013, Beard was appointed to the Order of the British Empire for “services to Classical Scholarship.” A prolific authority on Roman culture, she construes those services broadly. Her academic work ranges from studies of Roman religion and Roman victory practices to reflections on Roman laughter, and she has written lively books about Pompeii and the Colosseum. As the erudite docent on a BBC series three years ago titled Meet the Romans, Beard introduced a bigger audience to a bigger Rome: a citizenry far beyond the handful of Latin-speaking men who populated the Senate, served as emperors, or wrote (often dictating to their slaves) the books that we call “Roman literature.” Whatever the context (she also writes a blog, “A Don’s Life,” for the Times Literary Supplement), Beard does precisely what few popularizers dare to try and plenty of dons can’t pull off: She conveys the thrill of puzzling over texts and events that are bound to be ambiguous, and she complicates received wisdom in the process.