Lebenskünstler

William Deresiewicz – Moral Imagination – Specialization

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/26/2012

What Are You Going to Do With That? – William Deresiewicz

…It is the nature of specialization, after all, to be specialized. No, the problem with specialization is that it narrows your attention to the point where all you know about and all you want to know about, and, indeed, all you can know about, is your specialty.

The problem with specialization is that it makes you into a specialist. It cuts you off, not only from everything else in the world, but also from everything else in yourself…

…there’s nothing wrong with thinking that you got an A because you’re smart. But what that Harvard student didn’t realize—and it was really quite a shock to her when I suggested it—is that there is a third alternative. True self-esteem, I proposed, means not caring whether you get an A in the first place. True self-esteem means recognizing, despite everything that your upbringing has trained you to believe about yourself, that the grades you get—and the awards, and the test scores, and the trophies, and the acceptance letters—are not what defines who you are.

She also claimed, this young woman, that Harvard students take their sense of self-efficacy out into the world and become, as she put it, “innovative.” But when I asked her what she meant by innovative, the only example she could come up with was “being CEO of a Fortune 500.” That’s not innovative, I told her, that’s just successful, and successful according to a very narrow definition of success. True innovation means using your imagination, exercising the capacity to envision new possibilities.

But I’m not here to talk about technological innovation, I’m here to talk about a different kind. It’s not about inventing a new machine or a new drug. It’s about inventing your own life. Not following a path, but making your own path. The kind of imagination I’m talking about is moral imagination. “Moral” meaning not right or wrong, but having to do with making choices. Moral imagination means the capacity to envision new ways to live your life.

Moral imagination is hard, and it’s hard in a completely different way than the hard things you’re used to doing. And not only that, it’s not enough. If you’re going to invent your own life, if you’re going to be truly autonomous, you also need courage: moral courage. The courage to act on your values in the face of what everyone’s going to say and do to try to make you change your mind. Because they’re not going to like it. Morally courageous individuals tend to make the people around them very uncomfortable. They don’t fit in with everybody else’s ideas about the way the world is supposed to work, and still worse, they make them feel insecure about the choices that they themselves have made—or failed to make. People don’t mind being in prison as long as no one else is free. But stage a jailbreak, and everybody else freaks out.

Think of what we’ve come to. It is one of the great testaments to the intellectual—and moral, and spiritual—poverty of American society that it makes its most intelligent young people feel like they’re being self-indulgent if they pursue their curiosity. You are all told that you’re supposed to go to college, but you’re also told that you’re being “self-indulgent” if you actually want to get an education. Or even worse, give yourself one. As opposed to what? Going into consulting isn’t self-indulgent? Going into finance isn’t self-indulgent? Going into law, like most of the people who do, in order to make yourself rich, isn’t self-indulgent? It’s not OK to play music, or write essays, because what good does that really do anyone, but it is OK to work for a hedge fund. It’s selfish to pursue your passion, unless it’s also going to make you a lot of money, in which case it’s not selfish at all.

The world is much larger than you can imagine right now. Which means, you are much larger than you can imagine.

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One Response

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  1. robertogreco said, on 10/01/2012 at 14:12

    For your consideration: James Burke on “Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll


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