Helpful Advice for Rhodes Scholars (For the Rest of Us, Maybe Not So Much)

08/10/2010 12:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What hath meritocracy wrought? For like all utopias, it has brought consequences its planners did not foresee. The WASP aristocracy may be on the wane (with Elena Kagan's swearing-in, the Supreme Court is now without a Protestant), but it is being been replaced by what The New York Times' David Brooks calls "Organization Kids"--people groomed at elite colleges who mercilessly worked the meritocratic system, robotically racking up the "great grades, perfect teacher recommendations, broad extracurricular interests, admirable self-confidence and winning personalities" that catapulted them up society's food chain. But, says Brooks, their 24-carat resumes come at a price: "a professional and strategic attitude toward life. They were not intellectual risk-takers. They regarded professors as bosses to be pleased rather than authorities to be challenged."

This is a development that warrants close inspection: In replacing aristocracy with meritocracy, are we really opening the gates of opportunity, or merely replacing one narrow ideal with another? Is society really best served when it is led by the most charming? What impact does such a reward system have on the choices people make and, just as important, the opportunities they forsake?

These are important questions, and Brooks returns to them periodically in his Times column. Most recently, he attempted to offer a vision of life as something other than an exercise in precalcuated strategy. Brooks posits that in addition to the "well-planned life" that is "a well-designed project, carefully conceived in the beginning, reviewed and adjusted along the way and brought toward a well-rounded fruition," there is also the "summoned life" in which one applies "sensitive observation and situational awareness, not calculation and long-range planning" to questions such as "What are these circumstances summoning me to do? What is needed in this place? What is the most useful social role before me?" The answers, says Brooks, are likely to involve "the self dissolv[ing] into a larger purpose and cause" such as family, nation or faith.

For an example of the well-planned life, Brooks turns to Clayton Christensen, a highly regarded professor at Harvard Business School, and the advice Christensen gave to the school's graduates this year:

When I was a Rhodes scholar, I was in a very demanding academic program, trying to cram an extra year's worth of work into my time at Oxford. I decided to spend an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put me on this earth. That was a very challenging commitment to keep, because every hour I spent doing that, I wasn't studying applied econometrics. I was conflicted about whether I could really afford to take that time away from my studies, but I stuck with it -- and ultimately figured out the purpose of my life.

I have no doubt that the time Christensen spent in reflection represented a genuine commitment to self-knowledge, a commitment that was in fact difficult to keep in the face of the grueling demands of his academic program and which proved helpful to him. But is it churlish to point out that advice that begins "When I was a Rhodes scholar" may be of limited applicability to a broader audience--and even more so when the issue is finding one's purpose in life? This is not to suggest that Rhodes scholars do not face their share of life's disappointments and challenges. But I think it is fair to say that Rhodes scholars, Harvard Business School graduates and others who have successfully made it through successive gatekeeper institutions are significantly more likely than the general population to occupy a world in which bosses are sane, the rules are known, merit is rewarded and, when obstacles are encountered, there is a network of well-positioned friends and mentors to turn to for help. It's exactly the kind of world, in other words, that an ambitious young man or woman can spend an hour a night ruminating about and then conquer. Christensen himself comes close to acknowledging this elsewhere in his talk, when he described his realization that as a executive, he had the power to make his employees' lives one of fulfillment and self-actualization or a living hell of frustrated aspirations and hamster-wheel pointlessness. Guess which one most people are stuck with.

Brooks doesn't offer a real-world example of the "summoned life," but that's not why his model is flawed. The world isn't divided between those who "plan" on becoming hedge fund managers and those who are "summoned" to work for non-profits building schools in Africa. From the perspective of the individual who has the luxury of determining his or her path to self-actualization and then calling upon the resources to make it happen, that's a distinction without a difference. The real division is between those who live in a chess match and those who live in an amusement-park funhouse of distorted mirrors and trap doors--if not of roadside bombs (metaphorical or real). Indeed, that's real reason why the dream of the archetypal struggling immigrant parent is to send their children to Harvard--that "better life" they want to provide isn't about money but about access and, even more fundamentally, a chance to escape from the chaos of the ordinary world they know too well.

It's all to the good that Brooks uses his platform to think about how a society develops and deploys the talents of its citizens. But in doing so, it's important to look at the entire pyramid, and not just the top.