We worry that if we miss the on-ramp to the success highway, we will be forever stuck on the bumpy little roads to nowhere. Our culture is full of references to getting that big break, and we emphasize youth and energy, as the words above from “Hamilton” epitomize.
But it is not a true story for most people. Worse, if we believe in the story, it leads to misery & failure.
“Late Bloomers” is a book I could have written, if I had more literary talent. As I read it, I saw myself in many of the anecdotes, especially now that I have become a gentleman of leisure.
Many opportunities beat equal opportunity
America does not need to be the land of equal opportunity, since none of us want the same thing. Equal opportunity implies the one highway in the metaphor above. We should be – and we are – the land of many opportunities. The one shot, the one on-ramp is not how life works and not how it should work. We have diverse desires and diverse skills. A good life is one that finds purpose and a good society is one that enables most people to look for the good life.
The author talks about how we got into this one-way highway mind-set. In many ways, it was a bargain we made to create the fantastic prosperity we now enjoy. It has to do with the needs of an industrial society, the progressive “science” of management and even with different life expectancy of the past. There is better detail in the book, but we need to consider Fredrick Taylor’s scientific management and the way our school systems responded to needs of an industrial society.
I have written about Taylor before and will not go into detail now. Most of us recognize his methods, even if we have never heard of him. This is the idea of making work-processes most efficient, sometimes called time and motion studies. Taylor and his students would observe work environments and optimize everything. Good as far as it went. The cost was that it made people into exchangeable parts. They all needed to do the same sort of things. A craftsman, who customized and thought about his work was unwelcome on the assembly line. These kinds of ideas so permeated American, and in fact world society that we sometimes forget that it is not natural. Our school systems were also designed with these sorts of ideas in mind. The schools we grew up in were designed to the industrial model. The kids come in a group. They do the assigned stuff. There are even bells to tell them when to move.
Thanks to people like Taylor, we no longer need to behave in the ways he advocated. We needed the industrial process to break the poverty trap. Now our society has built enough wealth and prosperity that we can more freely indulge our individual humanity. And that is what we should do.
Not everything you can measure is important and not all that is important can be measured
The author talks about late blooming, which he defines as not doing things on schedule. People develop differently. Most young men are not mature at 18 years old. Their brains are literally not physically mature, and they are not ready to get onto that success ramp. Maybe time off doing something else would be useful, give them time to develop. Do not expect instant success.
I have seen this in boys I know and in myself. At around 21-years old, they just kind of click into place. Tasks that were impossible for their immature selves become easy. Girls develop faster, which likely accounts for much of their success in college earlier on. It may also explain why the boys catch up after graduation.
Many chances mitigate the problem of the quick start, lets lots of people flower in their own way and helps society in general. Unfortunately, we are sorting people at younger and younger ages. Parents are training their kids to get into the “right” kindergarten, so they eventually get into the right college and achieve the big success. This is pernicious.
It is impossible to measure the potential merit of young people with any precision. Yet we apply increasingly precise measures. Most of these are just bull shit, but they are much loved by bureaucrats seeking to justify their choices and protect their phony-baloney jobs. We could eliminate most of the workers in college admissions, for example, w/o harming – maybe helping – the composition of classes. The process is much less precise that we admit. Admit it and design from there.
The crab pot syndrome
Later in the book he talked about the need for “re-potting.” Sometimes you just have to move to find your place. Community is a great thing, but it can also be limiting. People you know well don’t help you change. They know what you were, not what you are or what you aspire to become. This applies to people who love you too. (One of the best things I did for my son Alex was to go to Iraq for a year. W/o m to “help and advise” him, he was able to develop in his own way.) And of course, not everybody even wants you to succeed. Communities after have a “crab pot syndrome,” where others pull down any individual who tries to climb higher. (I checked, BTW. Crabs trapped in a pot actually do pull down any of their number that tries to climb out.)
Of course, there is a lot more to the book than I can summarize. It is worth reading. I won’t claim that it gave me great insights that nobody has though of before, but it did remind me of things I have observed over my life and made me think of others in new ways.