the need for a new American Dream

From Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child:

"Quite often we are faced here with gifted patients who have been praised and admired for their talents and their achievements ... In everything they undertake they do well and often excellently; they are admired and envied; they are successful whenever they care to be - but all to no avail. Behind all this lurks depression, the feeling of emptiness and self-alienation, and a sense that their life has no meaning. These dark feelings will come to the fore as soon as the drug of grandiosity fails, as soon as they are not "on top," not definitely the "superstar," or whenever they suddenly get the feeling they failed to live up to some ideal image and measure they feel they must adhere to."
The American Dream often looks like a cushy job, a big house, a white fence, a yard, and the soothing chirps of some happily nested family of neighborhood birds.

At any given moment, millions pursue this dream the best they can. It often begins in poverty. A family seeking a better quality of life observes what they have and realizes that something about it just isn't right. A child becomes a vessel to a better life, via good grades, diplomas, and paychecks. This is great.

We see this happening generation to generation, as the once-impoverished are now leading (what appears to be) happy, comfortable lives.

The Inheritance of Meaning

For most people, going through this entire process takes several decades, and by the time the process is complete, they're probably deep into the universe of devoting themselves to the well-being of their children. From the looks of it, it worked. And it's all they've ever known; they'll most likely pass it down to their kids as well.

Thus a formula for living is derived to solve for the pesky question of meaning. Go to school, get the best grades, join the best institutions, and get the best jobs. This works for a short while.

But that pesky little question of meaning was never precisely defined-- what is meaning and purpose? Is it monolithic? Are your parents' estimations of meaning the same as yours? How should one live to engage with the question in a healthy manner? Over the past millennium, daily life for humans has radically changed, but the same fundamental questions remain (as evidence, flip through A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium)

At some point in the American Dream journey, meaning morphs from "put food on the table for the family" to something entirely different. This inconvenient truth gets lost in between Math Bowl competitions, orchestra auditions, and SAT prep courses. So everyone is left fighting yesterday's wars -- "meaning" doesn't evolve with the arrival of new conditions. The privileged children of the new elite end up competing over the same things, without the same set of motivating impulses guiding them down these pathways.

One Man's Meaning Is Another Man's Crisis

Countless highly educated kids, cut from this American Dream cloth, graduate from college every year as near clones of each other. They've all just about gotten the same grades, interned at the same tier of companies, participated in roughly the same types of "extracurriculars", and applied to the same schools and jobs. They never did anything without unconsciously running a calculation in their head of how that fits in with their "paper" self. I know because I'm one of them.

In the words of former Yale professor William Dereciewicz, these young elites graduated as "excellent sheep." Never having had to deal with any form of uncertainty, they continually do what is expected of them, and they do it damn well. In the back of our mind, maybe after a 3rd year doing the same humdrum work at a big consulting firm (or these days, a sexy, well-funded tech startup), just maybe we'll wonder why we're doing this.

But our brains have calcified to be unable to imagine a life outside of what everyone views as success. Even though, now more than ever, one can find fulfillment in almost any category of creative work.

I still struggle with all this. You can't rewire 20+ years of training overnight. And you can't rewire thousands of years of evolutionary reinforcement telling me to avoid uncertainty.

A common frame of re-imagination I've found is to seek out people who, coming from a position of some sliver of privilege, decided to go off-script. (Important to note that "off-script" can take the form of different things to different people. This list takes a specific form of off-script):
  • Josh Waitzkin: child chess prodigy, Columbia University grad. Now a Brazilian jiujitsu master and student of the art of learning
  • Tim Ferriss: Princeton grad. Now runs the 4 Hour Workweek blog, podcast, and show that he started a decade ago
  • Naval Ravikant: Dartmouth grad, dabbled in consulting. Now founder of AngelList & famous angel investor
  • Haruki Murakami: Studied drama in college, spent his twenties running a jazz club with his wife. Now a renowned novelist
  • Ken Jeong: Duke grad, MD from UNC, practicing physician. Now a comedian and actor
  • Mohsin Hamid: Princeton and Harvard Law grad, former McKinsey consultant. Now an award-winning novelist
  • Vijay Brihmadesam: Private equity analyst. Quit his job, worked at Chipotle, then started Tava Indian Kitchen in SF
  • James Freeman: Professional clarinetist turned founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
  • Demetri Martin: Yale grad, accepted into NYU Law. Now a renowned standup comedian
  • Joshua Redman: Harvard grad, accepted into Yale Law. Now a jazz saxophonist and composer
  • Ang Lee: Immigrant from Taiwan, famously toiled away on screenplays while his wife supported him. Director of Life of Pi
  • Ezra Koenig: Columbia grad, former Teach for America teacher. Lead vocalist of Vampire Weekend
  • Rollie Peterkin: Penn grad, Wall Street veteran. Quit his job for MMA training in Peru, now an English teacher in Madrid

I wish there was some data to confirm my suspicions, but I think talented/ambitious people going off-script isn't as risky as it seems to them. It's all in their head. The New American Dream is having the courage to successfully go off-script. Someone once wrote that in life, you get 2 out of the following 3: freedom, certainty, and money. The most common form of striving seems to value the "certainty + money" combination. It'll be interesting to see how the other combinations play out as more people get disenchanted by the standard mode of striving.