Soldiers of Academia – Part One – Dissatisfaction

Coastal California knows two large groups of K-12 students I’ll call the “American Indolents” and the “Soldiers of Academia.”

The American Indolents are descended from parents and grandparents who knew only limitless American power and riches: suburban comfort, economic ease, and relative job security. These kids coast on imperial momentum — or think they do — spending afternoons watching TV, smoking pot, playing video games, and generally goofing off.

The Soldiers of Academia are descendants of recent immigrants. Poverty is in recent family memory. Economic advancement is the primary famiy value. Intellectually, they “work to failure,” a weightlifting term meaning that you stop only when physically unable to continue. Imagine the “Rocky” theme song playing in the background as these kids are pushed relentlessly, from early childhood, to maximize academic opportunity. They spend their afternoons playing piano and chess, learning Latin, and going to Kumon math tutoring.

Based on my 30-year observation, the economic outcome is what one would expect: in general, today’s Soldiers become tomorrow’s prosperous doctors and lawyers, while today’s Indolents become tomorrow’s struggling gas station attendants and retail service workers.

Yet these two groups share a common feature: dissatisfaction. Naturally the Indolents are trapped like sharecroppers in dead-end subsistence work. Less obviously, the Soldiers, who marched and drilled through their childhood years to the pleasure of their parents, can sometimes be resentful, anxious adults, unsure what occupational fulfillment might mean.

There is a third, smaller group we’ll call “Intrinsics.” Before the age of 15, they find a calling, vocation, or hobby, intrinsically satisfying, and adaptable to have economic value. Not all Intrinsics are happy, and not all are rich (though many are), but most of them have something more important than wealth, or even than happiness: a sense of fulfillment, purpose or meaning in life.

A key benefit of this approach is that personal fulfillment is not contingent on big success. At the same time, it seems to increase the odds of stratospheric success. There is no external motivation (e.g. money, parental approval) powerful enough to drive you to global excellence. It has to come from being really, really interested in something first.

Warren Buffett did not begin trading stocks at age 11 under pressure from his parents. Teenage Bill Gates did not program minicomputers because his mom forced him. Walt Disney’s love of drawing and entertainment drove his success, over the objection of his father. In all cases, intrinsic enjoyment and curiosity drove achievement, not the other way around.

Thus a parent might prefer to encourage their child to be an Intrinsic instead of a Soldier — someone who knows how to identify a dream, make it marketable, and follow it through. At age 70, I would feel successful to have a happy, relaxed, purposeful 40-year-old daughter. Financial security would probably be a component of her relaxation, but as a means, not an end.

This is particularly important now, because I suspect the Soldiers of Academia model may not work as well in the next 20 years as it has in the last 20.

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