I was cautioned (rightly so) by my boss to be careful of social media use. I made a boneheaded mistake and retweeted without checking the hashtag. So, I write very carefully here even though what I'll say has political overtones and implications.
For many reasons, we need to redefine what it means to be "successful" in this post-modern, post-industrial society. One can be a failure at many things yet deemed successful if one has made enough money. That's sick for society. Its effects are all around us. It is also toxic to individuals. If one seeks money and power to define success, one will likely never have enough.
I teach in a high-powered prep school. We promise a "both-and" for our students and their parents. We promise a path to prestigious colleges paving the way to "success" while also promising to nurture the social, emotional and spiritual welfare of our students. I'm a proud parent of 5 kids who go to my school. I think we do a very good job. I also know that if we didn't promise a path to "success" as traditionally defined, we'd go out of business. Besides, nothing is wrong with money. I'd certainly like to have more of it.
But here is my fear.
How many of my teenaged students will, when they reach my age, wake up wondering if they've wasted half their lives chasing a phantom. Many will have done well enough in high school to get into a very good college, have done well enough in college to get that plum internship that in turn will have led to law-school, med school, business school, etc... eventually landing some of them in prestigious firms, hospitals, and businesses.
I suspect many will wake up and wonder if it has all been worth it, "Is this all there is?" Most of them will not the top in their fields. Only a few will land the "best" positions.
I think a mid-life crisis is a very real thing to many people. One reason they occur is because people define success too narrowly and they are disappointed after spending decades working for something to only find it an empty promise.
In an increasingly atomized, individualized, and automated society, fewer and fewer people will be able to meet success. Much of the anger Donald Trump successfully channelled was of people who have had the rules changed on them. The old paths to success aren't working. I fear they will work even less in the future. We can't afford a permanently angry group of older middle aged folks and I fear we are stuck with several generations of folks who are going to stay angry. Additionally, generations before us had family structures to support them. This is far less true today, as conservative author Ross Douthat explains.
"Be a success." "Work hard and get ahead." This is a seductive and powerful narrative. I'm a teacher. I chose a career where I knew my earning power was limited, yet I too have sometimes thought of myself as less successful than schoolmates who've earned far more than me. I reject that notion intellectually, but I still feel it even though I know better. How does the person feel who doesn't know better?
We need a better way. Desperately.
In my own small way, I am hoping my students see that they can define success differently through their work on my 20% project (which I learned about through +A.J. Juliani) I've had a series of activists come through and talk to my students about issues about which they passionately care. These activists have chosen less than lucrative career paths. Yet, they live fulfilled, meaningful and, dare I say it, successful lives. I thank +Phyllis Hanson, +Harvey Zendt and +Paul Paz y Mino for demonstrating this to my students.
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