Never Enough

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From The Wall Street Journal:

A hardworking teenager—let’s call her Amanda—excels at school. She’s a pianist, a varsity athlete, an honor student and the president of the debate club. She gets early acceptance to an elite university, lands the right summer internships, and, after graduation, secures the job of her dreams. Amanda has run the race; she has hit the mark; she has lived up to her potential and fulfilled the ambitions of her parents. Unfortunately, she’s also a mess. For years, despite the accolades, Amanda has felt “utterly vacant inside,” as Jennifer Breheny Wallace puts it in “Never Enough,” a timely exploration of adolescent achievement culture.

At once a description of an insidious problem and a call to arms, “Never Enough” is full of people like Amanda: young men and women whose personal accomplishments and affluent, ultra-supportive environments might be expected to guarantee them blissful satisfaction but have instead produced anxiety, loneliness and a feeling that life lacks meaning.

These effects are the unintended consequences of social norms that have come to prevail in many upper-middle- and upper-class families. The desire that young people succeed has morphed into something more like a demand. Writes Ms. Wallace: “Our children are living under a tyranny of metrics.” Numerous rueful parents testify in these pages, as do social scientists, educators and the author herself, a married journalist who writes with disarming candor of her own moments of overreach in the raising of her three children.

Why have things turned “toxic” for high-flying kids? Ms. Wallace sees widespread status anxiety fueled by a post-1980s stalling of social mobility and a rise in economic precariousness. Competition has intensified for spots in exclusive colleges and universities. So even mothers and fathers who try not to push, who try to be mellow and undemanding—dwelling less on grades and more on effort, for instance—can feel the pressure and pass it on to their children.

“As parents, we listen and chauffeur and chaperone and coach and cheer and help with homework and attend games and even practices,” Ms. Wallace writes of the “intensive parenting” that has become ubiquitous in the moneyed strata of American life. This style of raising children may be well-meaning, but it can suffocate and dispirit its young recipients. With every hour scheduled and every interest maximized for the purposes of a future résumé, children’s lives, observes the author, “become high-budget productions meant to attract the attention of admissions officers, scholarship committees, and football recruiters, not unique and imperfect stories just beginning to unfold.”

There’s nothing wrong with the pursuit of personal excellence, of course. Without the tug of ambition or the spur of competition, few among us would bother to distinguish ourselves, and the cause of human flourishing would go unserved. In the context of childhood, the problem arises when excellence is pursued as monomania. Focused on their AP textbooks and musical instruments and free of domestic chores (adolescence is “their time to be selfish,” says one unreconstructed mother), young people become sleek, siloed missiles aimed at the Ivy League. Once the rocket has delivered its payload—well, then what? As students like Amanda have found, the rewards of a self-oriented childhood spent sprinting toward high achievement may not be rewarding at all.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG notes that it doesn’t take many years after graduation for an individual to meet one or more complete idiots who graduated from an Ivy League or similar “selective” college/university.

The likelihood of meeting such an individual increases significantly if one meets children from wealthy families who attended prestigious institutions. It’s not the done thing to ask them how large a donation mom and dad made to the selective institution to ensure little Suzy’s or little Johnie’s admission.

It is also the case that such an individual will meet graduates from one or more blue-collar college/university who is brilliant.

Long ago, one of PG’s offspring had been admitted to more than one prestigious university. This offspring decided at almost literally the last day to apply to another university that was entirely respectable, but not regarded as prestigious. This offspring was admitted to this institution very quickly, in a matter of days.

It was the perfect choice for this individual and they flourished during their years of college and afterwards.

22 thoughts on “Never Enough”

  1. The Soviets never managed to create a single genius through environmental means, any more than Lysenko ever converted winter wheat into spring wheat, nor has anybody else, despite great incentives to do so. To produce even a handful of geniuses on the order of Gauss or Maxwell or Bohr could fundamentally change the balance of power.

    The use of gene-editing techniques might someday do so, but that is another matter entirely. And besides, research into the genetic basis of human intelligence is now taboo in the West. I hear tell the Beijing Genomics Institute is hard at work on the matter, though.

    • They didn’t destroy the ones that nature gave them (as today’s levelers want to) and made a pretty good job of substituting training and (forced?) hard work for the ones it didn’t. (Also something the Levelers openly despise.) The output doesn’t care what’s in the black box, as the Nobles prove.

      And don’t be so quick to totally dismiss Lysenko; he was onto something real–he just misunderstood how transgenerational epigenetics work.

      • Epigenetic scientists with degrees out to here can’t so much as produce rats that learn to run mazes a bit more quickly, yet a bunch of shepherds who couldn’t even read or write used selective breeding to give us the amazing border collie.

        • How many generations did that take?

          Also: the study of epigemetics isn’t about genetic engineering–there’s ample tools for that. Epigenetics is about understanding the mechanisms that make DNA work and (more importantly) not work. Living organism reproduction is non-deterministic because of environmental variances. For example, contrary to fictional depictions, clones are not identical copies of the original any more than identical twins are despite having identical genomes. More is going on than lockstep gene expression. Epigenetics is but one of the mechanisms involved but it’s one we *have* identified.

          It’s similar to the recent storm over LK-99 the claimed room temperature/room pressure superconductor. It isn’t. But it points the way to previously unknown mechanisms that allow the sample to respond to magnetic fields in a way only superconductors were known to react.

          The more we know about the finegrained mechanisms involved, the better we will understand exactly what is involved. No need to spend centuries mixing and matching at random, hoping to shotgunning into something useful.

          Deprecating what doesn’t immediately succeed is shorsighted.
          Broader views are generally more useful, don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater by rushing.

    • Exactly. There is an enormous difference between prodigies born with IQs north of, say, 170 being provided with the opportunity to achieve their considerable genetic potential and the children in the OP (the human equivalent of bonsai trees, really) being twisted into unnatural shapes by delusional parents reminiscent of the Comprachicos that Victor Hugo wrote about in The Man Who Laughs.

      Such parents are not only fundamentally evil, they are also quite stupid. If it were possible to create geniuses through environmental manipulation, then our blank-slatist adversaries during the Cold War would have done just that and produced a generational cohort easily able to out-invent and out-strategize the West.

      • The soviets tried.
        Quite successful for a while, too.
        They produced a lot of brilliant researchers (a couple dozen nobel prizes) and even more brilliant engineers. Some were geniuses and the rest “faked” it well. 😀
        They treated people as cogs in a machine and for a while the machine ran well, albeit at a horrible price.

        But by the 80’s they started skimping on their educational system and eventually their best schools shut down and never came back. They’ve been living off the legacy of their boomers, tech-wise, which shows in their faltering space program. They currently have a lander around the moon. I see 50-50 odds it crashes. India sent one about the same time. Theirs might land.

        Its a fine line between highly talented and highly educated, just as there is between prodigy and genius (STAR TREK did a good job with its Daystrom Prodigy episode). Both are needed and equally important but the ones societies can do without are the dead weight, self important fools. The soviets shot them. Another thing they got right. 😉

  2. According to the OP, this girl must be a mass of neurosis:

    Of course she doesn’t live in NY but in Gainesville, VA (pop. 17,000). She might actually be happy by the time gets her first PhD.

    SPACEX just hired a 14 year old Software engineer named Kairan Kuazi.He entered college at 11 and just graduated in june. He’s going to work at their satellite platforms operation in Redmond.

    Contrary to the OP, there are thousands of high achiever kids out there. Just not going to the Ivys, but to STEM schools, which is what offers them a challenge worth their talent.

    • That’s the thing, though. Those kids are geniuses and self-directed.

      Those aren’t the kids this book is talking about. This book is about the reasonably bright but not brilliant children of the meritocracy whose parents are so desperately trying to make little Johnny or Janey stand out from the crowd that they don’t allow them time to, well, be kids, and develop personalities and interests that would allow them to stand out from the crowd instead of being “Product of the Professional-Managerial Class #568483”

  3. Lots of people find achievers “toxic” and make it their mission to denigrate them.
    Like this guy:

    “Success is all about luck and connections, nothing else. Failures were unlucky or were cheated.”

    Or the luddite prez who insisted “you didn’t build that.”

    He’s the one who who did nothing, just like the other levelers who *have* to bring down the achievers, who want to put limits on their success to “give others a chance”, to make them less than they could be to bring them down to their level.

    Small minded small people, who talk big but achieve nothing, but puff themselves up for the ignorant. Poseurs.

  4. Not only is the connect-with-the-soon-to-be-famous bit useful (or at least amusing (I knew him when…)), it also inoculates the observant attendee from ever donating blind respect to the elites.

    Connecting with classmates for certain planned professions (e.g., local lawyer) is probably a more practical reason to prefer some state universities.

  5. Competition has intensified for spots in exclusive colleges and universities.

    The growth in the number of empty seats at the Ivies (which in effect run this country) has failed to keep pace with the immigration-fuelled population increase we have seen in in America. This is an example of what Peter Turchin means by the term “overproduction of elites.”

    PG quite correctly points out that a surprising percentage of Ivy League graduates fail to impress, and that a fair number of the graduates of East Directional State University are in fact often noticeably better people in every respect. However, the real value of attending Harvard lies not in the education offered there, but rather in the opportunity to make connections with people who are or will become powerful and important.

    It must make life a lot easier when your old college roommate becomes a Senator or a CEO, especially now that supporting Our Democracy really just means agreeing with the experts at Harvard.

      • In terms of character and intellect, Bluto would be a big step up from at least a dozen currently serving Senators of both parties that I can think of.

  6. Yes. I’ve seen articles by “intensive parenting” types talking about how they’re trying to get their children into the right preschools in order to get a leg up on the competition. Frankly, it’s little wonder that so many elite kids are neurotic messes. The real surprise is that any of them are functional human beings.

    • I am not so sure that our soi-disant elites really are functional human beings, to judge from the ongoing and accelerating collapse of the West that they are in large measure responsible for bringing about.

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