Poor Unfortunate Souls

(This post was originally posted on Tumblr on July 3rd, 2014. The series has moved over to Medium and new posts will be featured here.)

July 3rd, 2014

2 degrees and 21ish years of formalized education later, I’m a little flummoxed.

I learned a lot of things throughout my formative education. Skipping lunch is surprisingly detrimental to your overall health. It also makes you mean. Saying please and thank you will serve you well when getting through customs in the Midwestern United States. You will always need to know what 4 x 4 is — yes, always. Your knowledge around the structure of an expository essay will be a godsend to your 14 year old stressed out cousins but have little utility post-puberty. The periodic table will help you appreciate the design genius of Breaking Bad’s ad campaign. Canadian and American foreign policy through the late 1800s will give you newfound appreciation for how messed up the world is today. Thank you, world, for these important skills.

Now that we’re past the pleasantries, here are the things K through Masters Degree never taught me, and I’m just a little more than angry about it.

1. The nice guy will finish, but it won’t be first or last, it will be right in the middle and middle sucks.

2. Nurture can be reversed, in fact, sometimes you must.

So in the diametrically opposite style of the expository essay:

“The nice guy will finish, but it won’t be first or last, it will be right in the middle and middle sucks.”

I used to think that hard work and ambition were the lock and key to success. I’m not abandoning them, but I completely forgot about the seven digit tumbler to actually get you to the lock and key part of the vault — manipulation. Manipulation gets a bad rep. Its’ actual definition (okay the Google definition), is ‘to handle or control, particularly in a skillful manner.’ That sounds alright, actually.

But the dictionary version is without reality. Real-world manipulation is no longer a means to an end. In today’s day and age, it has become an end in itself. To get there one often has to engage in half-truths, sabotage, pain, deceit, misinterpretation and sometimes serious bridge burning. These tactics then allow us to ‘handle or control’ a situation. Think about the manipulators in your life — do big neon signs flash over their heads, screaming “EVIL?” Probably not. You’re probably thinking of someone you often describe to your friends as “a good guy, BUT really smart,” or “a super sweet girl BUT knows what she wants.” It’s not even explicit anymore. We’ve equated it with positive descriptors — smart, determined, etc. Further, it doesn’t even have to be an overtly hurtful activity — it can be as simple as leaving someone off of an email, taking credit for someone else’s success, or saying yes when you really mean no. Manipulation has joined the esteemed ranks of ambition and hard work as determinants of success.

I was not warned that this was the direction in which we were headed. The game has changed and so the hard workers and ambitious folk owe it to themselves to engage in manipulation just so that the hard work can pay off.

So if everyone’s doing it, what’s the big deal with getting on board?

“Nurture can be reversed, in fact, sometimes you must.”

It’s just not in some of us. Actually the redeeming factor for humanity is that it’s not in most of us. It was not taught, and in many cases, vehemently not taught. The mark of a good human being from about 5 (when you usually started school) and 14 (when high school hits you like a ton of bricks), was rooted in honesty. Hard work, repetition, dedication, truthfulness, and generosity. Your elementary school valedictorians were probably equal parts nice to the kids who were ‘different,’ as they were hard workers. They played team sports, believed in the community, did more volunteer work than thought humanly possible and mostly stayed out of the gossip circles. Success in our pre-pubescent world equated to good moral character.

Who do we revere as adults? No disrespect to any of these incredibly bright and accomplished men and women, but let’s take a hard look. Steve Jobs, who stole ideas and belittled his employees? Young Hollywood, where many have confessed to active use of the ‘casting couch’ as a necessity to their survival (see statements from Ryan Phillippe, Vanessa Marcil, Charlize Theron). In a recent conversation with writer and creator Beau Willimon, the brain trust behind Ides of March — his political drama — Beau admits freely that parts of Gosling’s character were based on his friend. A real life up and comer who had high hopes for the world of politics and what it could do. If you’ve seen the movie, you feel for Gosling’s journey from promise, optimism, hard work and virtue to a deceitful and damaged shell of a man.

The majority of 20 somethings — whether you’re in the early or late part of the decade — didn’t start on their path to professional stardom hoping for an opportunity to twist the truth, lie, or cheat. We believed in our own merit, on the good of people, and the world we live in.

I’m not saying this doesn’t still exist — it most certainly does. I am saying, instead, that the majority of folks hanging out at the top have had to modify who they are and how they act to retain that lucrative position.

I am suggesting we give the next generation of wunderkinds a fighting chance. That we do a better job of how we teach and train our up-and-coming stars and level-set expectations. Never should we advise people not to try hard, be the best, aim for the galactic realm above us, but instead let’s take it easy on our adamance that we live in a bubble of purity and consciousness or that hard work and ambition are enough. Let’s not mince words about what it takes to exist in the highest echelon of that bubble.

Success always required sacrifice, but now, it requires a moral sacrifice. Nothing so dramatic, just a little slice of the ethical virtue with which we are raised.

Most importantly, when folks get there — to that heightened level, supported by equal parts hard work, ambition, and yes, manipulation — let’s not hold them to a standard of virtue and moral character that is simply impossible to preserve during that climb. It does very little to redeem what remains of our poor, unfortunate souls.

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