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Ready or Not, Here Life Comes!
is an uneven yet interesting treatment of an important issue in America today: the widely perceived lack of preparation for working life among middle and
upper middle class young people.
Finding fault with the younger generation
is nothing new, but what does appear novel is that there appear to be no
shortage of upwardly mobile young people who describe themselves as adrift and
badly equipped for the challenges that face them as adults. Many of their
accounts are filled with self-criticism, doubt, and regret, and make a jarring
counterpoint to the popular image of the contented slacker.
Levine's take on this situation is
very broad in some ways and narrow in others. He generally eschews thorny
psychological or sociological issues. He writes about young people who are
basically mentally healthy and not facing unusual social or financial
pressures. Their deficits, as he describes them, are educational and
Levine is a well-known specialist
in learning differences, and in this work and his well-known books All Kinds
of Minds and The Myth of Laziness he stresses that young people
learn in very different ways, and that poor performance in school is often the
result of a rigid educational system that teaches subjects in ways that suit
only one type of learner. He argues that many students are incorrectly labeled
as lazy or unmotivated and miss out on important aspects of their intellectual
and social education when their learning idiosyncrasies are not recognized and
addressed. A gifted math student who can solve difficult problems mentally,
for example, might be shunted into a remedial class and convinced that he is
terrible at mathematics, simply because he lacks the motor skills to line up
long hand calculations correctly.
It is an article of faith with
Levine that getting the optimal educational, recreational, and social
experiences in childhood and adolescence virtually guarantees success in life.
Furthermore, he believes that these formative experiences can be cultivated by
parents, teachers and health professionals who are can recognize a learning
deficit or undeveloped talent in a child and respond appropriately.
Levine's worldview seems hopelessly
idealistic, and indeed his book has nothing to say about kids who face
tremendous social, financial, or emotional challenges. His audience is clearly
a narrow range of upwardly mobile parents who don't understand why their 20-30
something son or daughter can't get his or her act together (or who have
school-age children and don't want to spend their golden years with a
middle-aged teenager in the basement).
The most effective parts of this
book are the author's analysis of the most common ways young adults are set up
for failure early in their careers. Levine makes a very persuasive argument
that the way we educate college-bound youth is a major contributor to
dislocations and malaise in early adulthood.
I especially appreciated Levine's
criticism of "well-roundedness." He makes a convincing argument that
children should be encouraged to explore career options early and follow a
curriculum that is oriented toward preparation for working life rather than the
construction of the perfect college application essay. This argument is the
most substantial part of the book, and I found his reasoning compelling. The
qualities rewarded in the college admissions race seem disturbingly
disconnected from the skills employers actually expect from graduates. A
stellar student does not necessarily have good self-knowledge. The reverse is
often the case. Early scholastic and admissions success often depends on one's
ability to fit a single and often arbitrary standard of well-roundedness. In
contrast, success on the job requires knowing one's strengths and weaknesses
and choosing the specific task (or job) in which one is most competitive.
Levine has a realistic
understanding of the modern working world. He emphasizes that the days of
employer loyalty and lifetime employment are long past, and that young people
must be able to navigate through a rapidly changing and often unpredictable
labor market. At the same time, he holds on to what seems to this reviewer to
be an oddly idealistic trajectory for a working life. Startup adults should
embrace the drudgery of entry-level employment in preparation for the "main
act" of life, beginning in one's late thirties if all goes well, in which
they will be "paid for doing what they love."
Levine's ideal of doing one's best
in hopes of moving up is good basic advice, but it seems absurd to expect that
the average person can expect to be "paid for doing what they love."
This expectation is very modern, very American, and very unrealistic for most
people. Countless jobs have to be done in our economy that are not upwardly
mobile and do not reward creativity or initiative. Given Levine's own data on
the unpredictability of modern employment, it is hard to be comfortable with his
assumption that work can or should be the principal measure of one's
satisfaction in life.
Levine book also leaves a critical
question unanswered: what happens if one falls off the tracks? Although
Levine has cheery advice about U turns always being possible, his vignettes and
the overall tone of the book portray an unforgiving world in which those who
understand their neuro-developmental profile and try hard always succeed, and
those who fall off the rails early in life are doomed to the life of a loser.
This message will not be very helpful to his likely audience of struggling
startup adults and their parents.
I think Levine's book could have
been more useful and complete if he had more to say about how people can deal
with a less than perfect career trajectory. I certainly can't quarrel with
Levine's exhortations to seek achievement and fulfillment in work, but in the
lives of people we all know, and in fictional works ranging from Death of a
Salesman to About Schmidt and American Beauty, Americans have
had to confront the difficult reality that work life is often unfair over the
course of a lifetime, not just during the startup years. Many people, local
musicians and the creators of the Linux operating system, to name a few, put in
time at work to do their real work on their own time, and the world is
better off for them. Nearly all reasonably happy people have friends, family,
or a romantic life that give flavor and meaning to life. For such people,
troubles in the startup years can be compartmentalized and very likely
overcome--they need not be the hopeless train wreck of Levine's world, where
success in one's career is everything.
© 2007 David A.
Flory is a writer and musician with a long-term interest in clinical
psychology. He has a B.S. in math from the University of Texas, and he lives in