Good Intentions

I’ve been reading Douglas Wilson’s ‘7 Tips on Hiring Millennials’ in which he takes that generation to task over its work ethic and expectations.  At first it reads like a mere list of complaints, but as he notes in closing: “All generations have their faults. That is true, but these are the faults we are committing right now. These are the faults we could do something about if we wanted.”

Keep that last sentence in mind – we’ll need it later.

On the right, we’ve bemoaned the ‘participation trophy’ culture ad nauseum.  Unscored soccer games, grading on the curve, school attendance awards, the many places where ’showing up’ is treated as a virtue – all of these have irritated conservatives as they have become more prevalent throughout the culture.  The ‘pass/fail’ dynamic has been replaced with something more like ‘good for you, whatever you managed to do’.

But apparently, just as we learned ‘is’ has multiple meanings, the word ‘do’ is altogether too fluid these days.

The point Wilson makes that I want to dig into is the fifth on his list:

5. Millennials want to have done many important things, but they don’t want actually to do them. They want to have written a novel, but don’t want to do it unless someone gives them an advance — apparently on the basis of their boyish, sly grin, and lots of blue sky. They are encouraged in this by a broader cultural assumption that self-identification counts for a great deal. Feeling “like a girl inside” is now a free pass to all the girls’ restrooms in the California public school system. So why can’t somebody feel like a marketing genius inside? Or a writer? It would be grand to have started a company, or invented a cure for cancer, or to have written a television script that led to the winning of three Emmies. And this is true. That would be very grand. Ah, to have done so! But do you want to have a company culture that treats daydreaming as ambition? Do you really want a business full of employees who say, “Well, you know, I am more of an idea person . . . ”

Wilson has the proper disclaimer that he’s not indicting the entire generation of Millennials, and I certainly know my share of them who understand the difference between achievement and vague ambition.  But the participation-trophy standard has worked its way into the broader culture over time, and it is having serious consequences.  Take, for instance, performance standards for jobs like police and firefighters and soldiers.  The Social Engineers attempt to convince us that different, lowered requirements for groups based on race or gender will end discrimination.  That’s fine, if your goal is to have a profession that looks a certain way when it poses for pictures.  But in the real world, ‘doing things’ includes carrying out the job description, which is in part gauged by meeting certain standards.

Objective measures have been all but thrown out the window in the name of optics, though they won’t call it that.  But even a small application of logic shows how destructive this mindset can be.  Do you want the pilot flying your plane to have met all the standards, or are you content with him hitting around 70% of them?  What about your surgeon?  If he helped the medical school meet some kind of quota, is that all you want to know about him?  In the real world, the Pass/Fail dynamic MATTERS, and pretending that it doesn’t is, I’ll say it, evil.

I want to be clear here: Millennials can’t be blamed for the culture in which they were raised.  We taught them this.  WE made this bed.  Hell, they’ve seen a president elected with just a box full of intentions and speeches, and no actual achievement.  They’re not the problem as much as the outcome of a particular process.  That’s not to say they aren’t responsible for what they do going forward.  But it is a likely assumption that many of them need guidance to move beyond the ‘intentions’ phase.

‘These are the faults we could do something about if we wanted.’

And so they can, when they see real achievement celebrated.  They can, when they realize the difference between ‘I meant to do something’ and ‘I did that.’  They can, when they learn that ‘awareness’ is not action, and that intention is not a career path.

The good news is that there are plenty of places in the culture where ‘doing things’ still counts for more than ‘thinking about doing things’ or ‘talking about doing things’.  The world of sports immediately comes to mind; after all, million-dollar contracts are on the line.  Many artists get this as well; sculpting, drawing, and painting all have some finished product one can point to and say ‘I did that.”  Authors with books to their credit, marathon runners, people who work in the Oil and Gas industry – the world is still full of people who ‘do’.

If we want to counter the ‘participation-trophy’ crowd, we must start by championing achievement wherever we find it.  The administration and their supporters may be spending huge amounts of energy to celebrate ‘intentions’; but by stopping there, they leave the door wide open.  Highlighting people who set goals and achieve them gives conservatives a shot at helping turn that trend around, inspiring more people to ‘do things’.  At the same time, it underlines the miserable failure of the people who build entire political careers on ‘intending to do things’.

In the end, Millennials don’t need to be admired as much as they need to be inspired.