Sunday, March 1, 2009

Fixing Broken Communities: Harvard, Celebrities and the Cult of Me!

Long story short, since my summer job with the federal government, I've been offering career advice and guidance to students and young people from a myriad of disciplines, backgrounds (cultural and socioeconomic) and styles.

Two articles that flashed across my screen this week have me deeply troubled. Young people of the world, you are the only ones who can save our global, national, regional, municipal, and neighbourhood communities! The first step, stop watching reality television; specifically, American Idol. Please, let me explain.

The first article I'll address was written by Siobhan Rowe, the Oh, and By the Way columnist for Vancouver 24 Hours; no offense to Ms. Rowe, but it wasn't so much the article that caught my attention as it was the study on which she was focusing her lens. She addressed the cult of celebrity and the Oscars. I'd like to talk about career development.

Here are some rather disturbing findings from Ms. Rowe's article. In their book, The Ego Boom, Canadian authors Steve Maich and Lianne George refer to an American study which found that more college freshman want to be an actor or entertainer, rather than a veterinarian, doctor, social worker, or member of the clergy. Given the choice between fame or comfort, 29 per cent of today's young people would choose fame. This kind of narcissism is why people born after 1980 are being called the "me" generation.

And then there are the MBAs from Harvard who killed Wall Street and the banking system.

Well, that's what Kevin Hassett, Senior Fellow at the American Enterprize Institute, thinks about narcissism as it relates to the infusion of the financial system with the "best and brightest" from around the world. In the 1970s, Wall Street was run by "regular" and "normal" people; the industry was a cross-section of North American culture, skill and intelligence. Ideas on Wall Street and Bay Street came from everywhere. The best and brightest tended to become engineers, astronauts, doctors, and, perhaps, lawyers. And then Ivy League MBAs, drawn to the industry for a variety of reasons - including salary and lifestyle - arrived on Wall Street. Suddenly, risky financial models were being created to justify the bloated salaries of the over-educated movers and shakers of the finance sector. Hassett's argument is supplemented by a report from Amy Brunell, who argued that the an Ivy League MBA education has large implications for real-world settings, because "narcissistic leaders tend to have volatile and risky decision-making performance and can be ineffective and potentially destructive leaders." Does every MBA from Harvard become, as Hassett implies, a powerful leader because of the confidence-infused, narcissistic traits that came to fruition during their education? Hardly. But he does have a point, and this is it: "Wall Street didn't die in spite of being run by our best and brightest. It died because of that fact."

So where does this leave us? What does it have to do with The Gumboot and our community? What about your career, reader? Why are celebrities and MBAs from Harvard harbingers of social destruction? Here's the where, what and why:

Community and the overall livelihood of our planet depend on "we," not "me." The above two examples are probably the most exaggerated forms of narcissistic, self-centered approaches to life, the universe and everything. Now. As a global team - which we totally are - none of us are going to get anywhere unless we work together. Obviously, there's a strong argument for entertainers (ideally, they're our poets and storytellers) and financial experts (our bankers and money lenders that drive the economy) to maintain a prominent role in society. What I'm saying is that if you're a student looking for a career, think about your options.

First, you gotta do what you love. If you have to act, then you have to act. Remember that these days, though, there's more at stake than just one person's happiness. Sorry to break it to you. Second, we have enough actors, musicians, and Paris Hiltons. Not to mention nearly 100,000 un-employed professionals from Wall Street. We need doctors and nurses and engineers and community organizers and environmental stewards; people who can bring everyone up to a new, better level, rather than make the rich richer while perpetuation the notion that such a practice is a good idea, if not supercool and worthy of a college freshman's life-goal (editor's note: I'm thinking mostly of hip hop videos, The Thomas Crown Affair, and questions like "who are you wearing?!"). Third, there's more to life than money and fame, people. And, get this, with the series of pipes and tubes that is the world wide web, well, anyone can be famous!

So there it is. Students of the world (or the seven of you that read this blog and the three of those seven that tell three of your, like, the nine of you that hear about this), where and how we work is arguably the most effective medium through which we can create so many wonderful changes that will help our communities.

As your summer work search approaches, think about putting "we" before "me" - it just might change the world.



Loxy said...

I genuinely appreciate what you're saying and agree with it. I think the problem of thinking as a "we" rather than a "me" is that in general context, "we" is too big.

It doesn't have to be, but it's like people who fail to get on board with the environmental movement because they feel their one act is too small to make a difference.

"We" need to help convince people that strengthening communities and addressing issues as a "we" is not something bigger than the individual. Sometimes that means doing it for "me" even though it benefits the "we".

godfrey said...

Great stuff John and agree on all points. I think what's great is that giving to others, a cause, or the saving the planet can be also be one of the most 'me' centric endeavours. Think about it, isnt' it so much more fun coming up with a creative gift and giving it than unwrapping an ugly turquoise sweater you never wanted in the first place. So, let's get out there and give to our time and energy to community, friends and the planet all in the name of indulging that "me" impulse. Giving is so satisfactory and nutures both "me" and "we" at the same time.