Joe Epstein on Youth

More on our overconfident kids from a thoughful essay by Joseph Epstein:

So often in my literature classes students told me what they "felt" about a novel, or a particular character in a novel. I tried, ever so gently, to tell them that no one cared what they felt; the trick was to discover not one’s feelings but what the author had put into the book, its moral weight and its resultant power. In essay courses, many of these same students turned in papers upon which I wished to–but did not–write: "D-, Too much love in the home." I knew where they came by their sense of their own deep significance and that this sense was utterly false to any conceivable reality. Despite what their parents had been telling them from the very outset of their lives, they were not significant. Significance has to be earned, and it is earned only through achievement. Besides, one of the first things that people who really are significant seem to know is that, in the grander scheme, they are themselves really quite insignificant.

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  • Matt

    “…what the author had put into the book, its moral weight and its resultant power.” In which century, exactly, was Epstein teaching this class? I’m fully behind the argument he makes, which renders his ability to offend me with the substance of it even more surprising.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/vgururao/ Venkatesh Rao

    LOL! Reminds me of the Total Perspective Vortex machine in the Hitchhiker’s Guide…it shows you in a vast universe-void an insignificant little dot with an arrow saying ‘you are here.’ It drives people who get into it mad. When Zaphod Beeblebrox gets into the machine, he comes out quite normal, because the machine tells him he is the most significant person in the universe. But later we discover that that particular universe had been constructed for him, due to a weird plot twist, so of course he’d be the most important thing in it 🙂

    Like Matt, I too agree with the sentiment, but not the articulation of it. In my case, I am amused rather than offended. I like Bob Hope’s line on death: “eternal nothingness is OK if you are dressed for it.”

    Our individual insignificance, whether or not we are ‘significant’ within a given human time/culture, is ultimately a trite observation. I mean come on. Speck of dirt in one galaxy among zillions?

    If you can maintain the illusion of significance thanks to the collusion of others, like Paris Hilton, why not? 🙂

  • spindizzy

    I’m unsure if young people have a more inflated sense of self-importance today than in previous generations, but if that is true I’d like to throw out some ideas.

    One possibility might be that it results from a political trend from paternal to maternal values. I personally think Western societies place an unhealthy emphasis on unconditional over conditional love. How this associates with female empowerment or the changing role of fathers is a contentious question.

    Another possibility is that it connects to a transition from group oriented to individualistic culture. It might be the result of consumerism, or the security afforded by a welfare state, or the breakdown of extended family and ethnic ties.

    OK, now I’m really being stupid but one more possibility is a demographic argument. Perhaps the fertility-mortality trade-off has shifted in favour of more hubristic people. Confidence with the opposite sex certainly seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    These are such complex issues. I doubt there is any value in speculation, other than for fun. 🙂

    > Our individual insignificance [..] is ultimately a trite observation.

    Venkatesh, if you really feel this way then you are light-years ahead of me. I’ve spent many years trying to understand how to deal with this fact. I still don’t have an answer.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “Besides, one of the first things that people who really are significant seem to know is that, in the grander scheme, they are themselves really quite insignificant.”

    Is that true? I’m skeptical.

  • Caledonian

    no one cared what they felt; the trick was to discover not one’s feelings but what the author had put into the book, its moral weight and its resultant power

    ‘Moral weight’ is a matter of feeling, not logic. ‘Power’ is a matter of feeling, not logic.

    What the author puts into the work really isn’t particularly significant, is it? This person can’t quite make up their minds – do the texts represent a significant achievement that entitles them and their authors to respect, or are they really not important in the grand scheme of things?

    I give this feeling-driven argument a D-; not enough blood to brain.

  • Lake

    What powers does Epstein think these works have, if not the power to induce feelings of various sorts in the reader?

  • Fabio Franco

    1 Peter 5:5-6
    Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,
    “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.

  • josh

    It’s entirely possible that we are the most or at least among the most intelligent beings in the universe. That’s at least pretty significant. What a sad sack.

  • Ben

    The line “my students just don’t get it, for a reason I have no control over” reads a whole lot like “I’m just a lousy teacher”.

  • Alan

    Is this a fair structuring of the argument?

    1. Significance has to be earned.
    2. Achievement is the only way to earn signficance.
    3. Therefore, people who have become themselves significant(presumably while still earning it) understand that they are insignificant.

  • http://metaandmeta.typepad.com Q the Enchanter

    One gives an account of the “moral weight and its resultant power” of a work by articulating how its content links up with the emotions of its audience. Ineluctably, that audience is the (insignificant) “I.”

    Now, *of course* a meaningful discussion in these terms will involve more than jotting down banalities like “Reading this book made me sad” (or whatever). But while an “observation” like that could be faulted along many dimensions, being *too* reflective is not one of them.

  • http://econoblag.blogspot.com/ Daniel Reeves

    “What powers does Epstein think these works have, if not the power to induce feelings of various sorts in the reader?”

    A good essayist, writing about a story, talks about the feelings that the story conveys (or is supposed to), not the feelings one personally felt after reading. A good essay reads from a general viewpoint, not the author’s. Statements such as “I believe” and “I think” should be revised out of every essay in which they occur.

  • Caledonian

    A good essay reads from a general viewpoint, not the author’s.

    The author does not possess a general viewpoint, only a personal one. By your standards, every ‘good’ essay must be filled with lies.

  • tcpkac

    Nice post : one of the main reasons I mostly stopped bothering with this blog was the apparent preening sense of adolescent self-importance. Just goes to show.

  • Ben Hyink

    This is an interesting discussion topic, but I would like to see some objective data that compares the extent to which overconfidence (and risk taking behavior) is manifested in people who enjoyed privileged socioeconomic status or receive unconditional love at home compared to people who lacked such background. I suspect the childhood environment factors cited are an exaggerated influence and that behavioral tendencies are manifested in a way that depends most on the immediate context.

    I have known poor and working class people and people who came from extremely dysfunctional homes (some of whom haven’t escaped those circumstances) who nonetheless have tended to act in overconfident ways and often seek out unnecessary risk at personal expense. There also are examples of rags-to-riches celebrities who came from broken homes who are overconfident and take unnecessary risks. I would be less skeptical of a claim that Americans in general have a stronger overconfidence bias or tend to take greater risks than people in most other countries.

    Maybe the above-mentioned claims are well-founded but I would like to see stronger evidence of significant correlations or causal relations.

  • Alan

    Is there anyone else who thinks we might just be confusing callowness with overconfidence at play? Too much love at home? Over-indulgence, maybe, but love? It can be argued that parental love, whatever that means, imparts a grounded, though realistic and encouraging assessment of a child’s strengths and weaknesses. From the remove of the classroom, it is far too easy to impute imagined circumstances and motives to others. I hear the refrain that today’s students, in general, are not getting any better at critical thinking–and that may well be the case, but for present purposes it remains simply another unsupported opinion. Show me da evidence.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Is that true? I’m skeptical.

    FYI: No.

    If you’re living your life right, you might have a deep sense of your incompetence but not your insignificance – though I don’t know that Epstein distinguishes between the two.

  • http://seanpadraic.wordpress.com Sean McGrath

    “Significance has to be earned, and it is earned only through achievement.”

    This is something that most people I know– including myself– forget all too often. I suspect that once you really take this notion to heart, it makes it easier to achieve significance. You aren’t about to do something worthwhile unless you realize that you HAVE to do it.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Eliezer, interesting take, but I was coming more from the angle that overconfidence/unwarranted optimism may help fuel outsized achievement and hence “significance”.

  • poke

    A colleague recently told me that, here in the UK, school children are now encouraged to write about their feelings when writing up scientific experiments. (They’re also encouraged to write them in the first person.) Apparently this is all part of modern “educational theory” and merely extends what they do in other subjects to science. Maybe Epstein’s students had been taught to do it that way?

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    I tried, ever so gently, to tell them that no one cared what they felt

    I don’t think it’s true, and I don’t think there’s any gentle way to say it.

    I was pretty literal-minded when I was a kid, and I can’t imagine taking that well.

    There’s a probably useful germ in there….You’ve got people who care what you feel because of family or friendship, but if you want the rest of the world to be interested in what you feel, you need to offer it something it wants.

  • http://www.alfin2100.blogspot.com Al Fin

    tcpkac makes an interesting observation. I wonder how many people commenting actually read the essay by Epstein? And how did it make them feel?

  • Mark Morris

    I read the essay by Epstein. A child running around on the city streets at age eleven and parents not attending any of his sporting events are signs that they were not very good parents. Epstein is a deeply, emotionally dysfunctional individual who is in denial and expresses it by defending his parents. I also think he is angry and resentful that today’s children are getting more love, warmth and attention than his generation ever did. And that is the reason they are getting it–his generation became emotionally aloof parents. My generation and those a bit younger don’t want to continue the mistakes of the past. So, today’s children are raised with the least amount of shame, guilt and fear as possible.
    And what is wrong with considering oneself significant?

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Morris:

    And what is wrong with considering oneself significant?

    Nothing, if you happen to be significant.

    Perhaps you meant to say that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be significant.

  • Ari

    I wonder if Epstein even realizes that he could turn his logic back around on himself? Every generation of teenagers thinks that they know everything — and then, when they grow up to be about Epstein’s age, they start to say: well, we were *nothing* compared to this new generation of antisocial brats! In other words, now that they’re older, they *still* think they know everything — only they probably call it “wisdom,” or some such thing. It’s too bad human lifespans aren’t longer, or we’d get to hear some 110-year old guy complain about these durned 70-year-olds who think they’ve got it all figured out.

    Ironically enough, this is something I picked up reading ancient literature. There really is nothing new under the sun.

  • spindizzy

    Under the old British system, children were given exams at 11 years old. The results then determined who could proceed to grammar school (approx. 25%) and who would remain in secondary high.

    Being an accomplished child by the admittedly very low standards of my peers, I made it into the grammar. I remember the speech given to us by the headmaster on our first day of attendance. He said something along the lines of:

    “You may be used to coming top of the class in your old school. For most of you, that will not continue.”

    It was actually when I entered university, after a total of 13 years of formal schooling, that I had to come to terms with not being the smart one anymore. 13 years’ of habit forming is hard to break. I recognise a lot of myself in Epstein’s criticism.

    My point is, I don’t know where Joe Epstein teaches, but maybe it’s not only the parents who have spoiled the children. Maybe it’s just that we live in a more meritocratic society, with more people rising to the level of their own incompetence.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    I find it sad that (1) most of the people who commented here earlier did not read the essay but instead chose to nitpick on their own misinterpretation of the short excerpt; and (2) some of the people who did read the essay, like Mark Morris there, managed to misinterpret it in perverse and entirely unjustified ways.

    Epstein makes a decent point that there is some level of parenting attention that is optimal for children to have; that there can be either too little or too much attention; that the current generations of parents are erring on the side of too much; and finally, that this has some undesired (yet not catastrophic) consequences in children.

    There’s nothing wrong with that message. This state of affairs doesn’t mean the world will end, but his analysis does seem most likely correct.

  • waterrocks

    A colleague recently told me that, here in the UK, school children are now encouraged to write about their feelings when writing up scientific experiments. (They’re also encouraged to write them in the first person.) Apparently this is all part of modern “educational theory” and merely extends what they do in other subjects to science. Maybe Epstein’s students had been taught to do it that way?

    As a British schoolchild until extremely recently, I can reassure you that this is bullshit, poke, at least in the schools I’ve been in.

  • Unknown

    If Eliezer ends up accomplishing nothing, what are the odds he will admit his insignificance?

  • kevin

    As a college student, I frequently hear students saying “I just feel that (X).” It always annoyed me. One of my professors (Economics) got pissed off and said, “Stop telling me what you feel, this isn’t Oprah. Tell me what you know. Your feelings are trivial.”

  • Thomas Ryan

    I didn’t read the essay, but I understand exactly how annoying it is when people tell you how they feel about something.

    “It was a bad movie.”
    “How?”
    “It was weird.”
    “What do you mean weird?”
    “I don’t know I just didn’t like it.”

    The movie usually happens to be a good movie.

    It is frustrating when people talk to you about how they feel then stop there and think its valid.

    But about insignificance. How about simply being more significant than the average person, yet still relatively insignificant among your tier? It would be beneficial for everyone to strive upward, but, first, it is crucial for everyone to know where they’re at.

    I don’t see any reason to bask in your insignificance when there is so much you can do to make yourself more significant. Shoot, it even seems that the end of humanity could be people stagnating in their insignificance and feeling like its okay (or maybe even deep) to not do anything about it.

  • Doug S.

    Oddly, I was still the smart one, or at least one of the outspoken smart ones, in some of my Huge State U classes. I managed to impress my freshman calculus professor enough that I got a cash award. Does that make me weird?

    There’s a good chance that, in some ways, I could be the textbook example of “overparented child.” My parents do not allow me to fail. For example, when I told them that I would not attend my early morning college classes because I was just going to sleep through them anyway, they said that was unacceptable. I said that the only way I would go is if they took me to class themselves… so they did. They had me stop sleeping in my dorm room, and my mom would literally wake me up every morning and drive me to class to make sure I attended the lectures. I went to every 8:10 AM class, never heard a word the professor said, and learned everything from the textbook and homework assignments.

    I once asked my parents if people have a right to make their own mistakes, and they were adamant that people do not have the right to make their own mistakes. They said that, for example, doctors do not have the right to make their own mistakes, because if they do, they can be sued for malpractice. (My mom is a doctor.)

    When left to my own devices, I spend all day surfing the Internet and playing video games. This greatly distresses my parents, who are concerned about how I am going to make a living if I refuse to do anything unpleasant, such as get a job. (I am currently 25 years old and job-free.) The things I find important, other people find trivial, and vice versa. I’ve always been very good at schoolwork, but I find no satisfaction in it whatsoever. It’s a horrible analogy, but being a top student always felt to me like I was being honored for being the best performing slave on the plantation. I never found going to school desirable; instead, I always did it because it was the most tolerable among bad choices. (What I am proud of is this. I earned that because I wanted it, and not because I was being coerced.)

    What I want is to be in a position in which nobody can make demands of me that I feel I have no choice to comply with. Right now, if I, say, don’t want to take care of the laundry, I don’t have the option to let it sit in the hamper for another day, because I am financially dependent on my parents. I resent being interrupted when I am doing something, but what ironically makes it worse is that the demands are so reasonable and minimal that I can’t justify my resentment of, say, being told to go to the grocery store, as anything other than petty selfishness. (Which I freely admit it is.)

    I don’t need much money. If I have a small room maintained at a comfortable temperature in which I will not be disturbed, enough food to avoid being hungry, and an Internet connection, that’s basically enough for me in terms of material possessions. Oh, and a flush toilet and toilet paper would be nice, too. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have enough savings (I have about $30,000 in the bank) to “retire” to even this minimal existence, considering the price of housing in the United States. (Could I live a “college student dorm room” existence on $30,000 for 70 years in some foreign country?)

    This is probably too long for a blog comment, but what the heck.

    ::clicks post::

  • Caledonian

    I once asked my parents if people have a right to make their own mistakes, and they were adamant that people do not have the right to make their own mistakes. They said that, for example, doctors do not have the right to make their own mistakes, because if they do, they can be sued for malpractice. (My mom is a doctor.)

    That isn’t an example of ‘making one’s own mistakes’, primarily because it directly affects other people. What your parents are in effect saying is that people cannot be permitted to make choices for themselves – powerful authorities must ensure that they make the ‘correct’ choice, however they define ‘correct’.

    I’m sorry, Doug S., but your parents are idiots. (You have my deepest sympathies.)

  • Doug S.

    I asked my mom about this again today, and she hedged. She demanded that I describe the category of mistake I meant. I suggested someone taking his life savings to Vegas for the express purpose of losing all of it, and she said yes, if it’s his money, he has the right do that. (I suspect that she probably wouldn’t let me do that, though.)

    Anyway, my father has said that much of his concern with my behavior results from the fact that it reflects badly on him. This is not a trivial or idle concern. For example, the local school system has repeatedly acted under the assumption that my disruptive behavior was the fault of my parents, and basically treated them as though they were on trial for child abuse in all their dealings with the school system.

    (I eventually ended up in a special education school, which, all things considered, probably did me more harm than homeschooling would have. There were basically two kinds of students at that school: “retards” and “evil geniuses.” Guess which peer group I ended up identifying with? Eventually, around 8th grade, the normal curriculum caught up with me, and I successfully integrated myself into the normal public schools. Whenever I read about mathematical child prodigies, I keep thinking, “That could have been me, if someone had given me the kind of instruction I wanted.”)

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    @Daniel Reeves

    “Statements such as “I believe” and “I think” should be revised out of every essay in which they occur.”

    Your French reading copy of Montaigne must be heavily redacted then. Pity.

    @Doug S

    “If I have a small room maintained at a comfortable temperature in which I will not be disturbed,”

    You should consider your own blog. Reading this release of your inner hikikomori is most enlightening. Your mother seems like the strongest argument for Freud I’ve run across in a long time, if I may be so bold.

  • spindizzy

    “If I have a small room maintained at a comfortable temperature in which I will not be disturbed,”

    Someday you are going to want kids of your own, and that isn’t the way to do it.

    Be a doctor, not an Eliezer!

  • A.S. (a hikikomori from Russia)

    spindizzy, your kind of attitude is what created the whole hikikomori syndrome in the first place. It is a biased unacceptance of deviations from social “normality”, where “normality” is simply what the majority does.

    Have you ever considered the moral responsibility of giving birth to a child? To bring here someone new, forcing him/her to live in this mad world is not a small matter at all. In fact, no act can be more cruel than this, because no cruelty would ever happen to a person if he/she had never been born in the first place.

    When I talk about these matters, people usually write me off as a madman, not even trying to logically analyse the issue.

    To the blog owners:
    The feeling of goodness of bringing someone into this world is the single most harmful example of a human bias I know of. Probably it is worth writing about some day. But the “political incorrectness” makes it impossible, I guess.

  • Nick Tarleton

    spindizzy: speak for yourself.

  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    Rephrasing the excerpt and many comments in this blog’s common terminology: “Your feelings are something about the map. Let’s talk about the territory.”

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    Be a doctor, not an Eliezer!

    A very strange game spindizzy is playing. Let me see if I can play.

    Aspire to a cabin in the first-class section, do not aspire to save the boat from sinking or to transform it into a General Systems Vehicle.

    Do not try to pull the sword out of the stone.

    Be a Microsoft Certified System Engineer, not a Linus Torvalds!

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    @A.S.

    Do you need a “rental sister?” I mean, I won’t pry your oyster open, but really, if you are truly a hikikomori, there are safe ways out of your room if you think you’d like to try.

  • Doug S.

    I’d never get enough inspiration to maintain my own blog. I’m much better at writing blog comments.

    Also, what I specified was the minimum level of material possessions that I’d be satisfied with. A computer with an Internet connection is sufficient, but a top-of-the-line computer that plays the latest games is preferred to one that is good for Web browsing and word processing but can’t play games less than four years old. A television, recent video game consoles, and video games to play on the consoles would also be very nice, but not required.

    I won’t say I want a pony, because I don’t. 😉 What I do want is a cat. I’ve always wanted a cat. I love cats. I’m crazy about cats. I used to read every book on cats that I could get my hands on. Cats tend to like me; thanks to all that reading, I’ve got a pretty good understanding of how to encourage them to like me. I don’t have a cat, though, because my family is allergic and my mom won’t let me keep one in her house. (My brother has asthma.)

    I’m not the kind of hikikomori that’s afraid to leave their room or their house. I’ll go to the movies with my family, get phone numbers from girls in bookstores, and things like that. I also love to go to geeky conventions. I’m pretty social when there are people around me other than my parents; I just don’t mind being alone in a room, not when there are so many games to play, books to read, and blogs to post comments on.

    Oh, and my parents are borderline workaholics who love their jobs, while I ended up with what might as well be ergophobia. I’m lacking in impulse control (always have, it caused problems for me in school) and have no self-discipline whatsoever. I’m completely incapable of being productive when I don’t feel like it.

    What’s worse is that I don’t find self-discipline to be a trait I want myself to have. I want to do what I feel like doing, and I don’t even want to be able to want to do what I don’t feel like doing. To hell with the long run, I want to feel good now! I’ve deliberately cultivated a short time horizon, because I don’t see the future as being better for me than the present. “Free time” is one of the things that is most important to me, and I don’t see how “growing up” and becoming independent from my parents is going to get me more free time than I have now. How is spending 40 hours a week working for an employer going to get me more free time?

    I’ve posted about my own messed-up psyche on this blog before; have I started to get boring or repetitive?

  • spindizzy

    “Hikikomori”? There’s too much Japanese on this blog.

    AS:

    You sound rather depressed. I’ve been there too. Given time, things with seem different. Ganbare! 🙂

    Richard:

    Yes, you pretty well summed up what I’m saying. Don’t try to be an Eliezer unless you think you are at least as smart and a lot more disciplined, and even then only if you don’t have a safer alternative life strategy.

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    Ah, now it makes some sort of sense. I had interpreted your comment as saying that Eliezer was a loser, from which I had tentatively assumed you have a very bizarre way of evaluating people or have absolutely no way to evaluate a person’s knowledge or intelligence without counting their degrees or years of schooling.

    Don’t try to be an Eliezer unless you think you are . . . a lot more disciplined.

    Still confused about that. I’d have guessed that Eliezer is even stronger on Executive Function (discipline, control over impulses, able to delay gratification) than on general intelligence or fluid intelligence.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I think I’m rather stronger on long-term Executive than short-term Executive. It’s easier for me to resist a high salary than a cookie.

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    I think there is significant genetic variation unrelated to Executive Function specific to hunger and satiety signals.

    When my brother hit puberty he started to spend most of his discretionary waking hours working on cars and in woodworking shops, and my Mom was constantly reminding him to stop to eat.

    When I hit puberty I started to spend most of my discretionary waking hours with source code and mathematics, and in college many times I worked from one end of the day to the other without stopping to eat.

    My brother and I have always been rail thin even though neither of us seem significantly above the U.S. mean in Executive Function.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I really enjoyed the Epstein article and right after I finished e-mailed it to my own folks.

    A.S. (a hikikomori from Russia), if you aren’t doing so already, start reading the Antinatalist Blog.

    I feel some kinship with Doug S. (especially his minimalist conception of “the good life” or “the necessities”) but I think if I were in his situation I’d hate myself.