The Elite Personified

by Conor Friedersdorf

Meet Susan Nagel, the young woman who has it all:

Miss Nagel’s talents, unusual for a socialite, have been on rather dizzying display: published articles, a scholarly paper, nationally syndicated op-ed pieces, awards, advocacy work for sustainable organic agriculture and social justice. An expert shooter in trap, skeet and clay, she was a blue-ribbon winner of a small-bore rifle competition.

By the time of her 2009 graduation from Nightingale-Bamford, the private all-girls school on the Upper East Side, Miss Nagel had founded Model United Nations and history clubs, a travel Web site for teenagers,, and another site,, intended to raise awareness of her hero, the founding father James Madison, and win him a federal monument.

Along the way, Miss Nagel befriended some prominent historians and at 17, became the youngest registered lobbyist on Capitol Hill. She is currently a sophomore at Johns Hopkins, double-majoring in international relations and history, with a minor in voice (a coloratura soprano, she recently recorded a CD of operatic arias).

The whole article goes on that way.

Rather than pretending that we know this young woman – a Style Section profile has several purposes, and showing us a whole person isn't one of them – let's discuss her as if she's a character in a novel we're reading. She is intelligent, poised, physically attractive, hardworking, and priveleged.

But don't you worry for her?

She is cast as the meritocratic elite's most accomplished overachiever. And I'll tell you why I worry especially about someone like that. With age, everyone realizes that life isn't as simple as it once appeared. Career and Marriage are transformed from abstract hopes into concrete decisions. Every one that is made closes off other possibilities. And every so often, we take stock of life, pondering its purpose, what it is that makes us happy, our responsibilities to others, whether meaning can be found in our work, etc.

Being raised on the Upper East Side, studying at elite schools, and winning blue ribbons in small-bore rifle competitions – or if you prefer, being part of the meritocratic elite generally – insufficiently prepares young people for these questions. Instead, the world of prep schools and top tier colleges traffic in a perverse illusion: that building a perfect resume is the same thing as building a perfect life.

I'd advise everyone in that world to remember that resume building should always be treated as a means, not an end; that impressive careers are not a guarantor of happiness or meaning; and that since every subculture has its pathologies, you're probably not doing things right unless the other people in your world are at least slightly uncomfortable with some way in which you're challenging its assumptions.