When I first heard about William Deresiewicz‘s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, I assumed it was yet another critique of Millennials. But, when a friend I respect strongly recommended it to me and loaned me his copy, I thought I’d give it a skim. I soon found I couldn’t put it down.
Indeed, Deresiewicz does describe how elite institutions manufacture “students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” But, the reason why I found the book compelling was because it made me realize that excellent sheep are not just those over achieving kids, but also include people like me and some of my talented and caring clients.
Most of us (and Deresiewicz candidly includes himself as well) have suffered from conforming to a narrow definition of success. Just as my investment to obtain a Ph.D. made it extremely difficult to leave academia, clients in successful careers who long to break away from what they feel has become “soulless” work have a very difficult time even attempting to explore new paths. And, this is understandable. Deresiewicz argues that it requires setting yourself free from widely held values:
Vocation is Latin for calling… It isn’t something that you choose… It is the thing you can’t not do… But the summons doesn’t happen by itself. You have to do the work to make yourself receptive to it… You won’t be able to recognize the things you really care about until you have released the grip on all the things you’ve been taught to care about.
Many of my clients believe it is “self-indulgent” to “find oneself.” To this, he says…
Look at what we have come to… You’re told you’re supposed to go to college but you’re also told you are being self-indulgent if you actually want to get an education… It’s not okay to study history, because what good does that really do anyone, but it is okay to work for a hedge fund. It’s selfish to pursue your passion, unless it’s going to make you a lot of money, in which case it isn’t selfish at all.
Beyond a moderate level of material comfort, happiness consists of two things: feeling connected to others and engaging in meaningful work.
He argues that the way to find one’s own path is to cultivate a “habit of reflection” through the study of arts and humanities.
What the habit of reflection will enable you to do–what maintaining contact with art and history and philosophy (or for that matter, if you go into the humanities, with the natural and social sciences) will enable you to do–is bring the full range of human experience, of your experience, to bear upon your work. If you become a doctor, it will make you a healer instead of a pill-pusher, someone who treats people, not diseases. If you turn out to be a professor, it will mean the difference between becoming a pedant, who teaches courses, and a mentor, who teaches students.
What do you think? Are you an excellent sheep, too? And, if so, how might you break free?
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