Sunday, April 3, 2016

Ancient Chinese Wisdom for Today's Students

"Why can't I figure out who I am and what I want to do?"

In an era saturated with opportunities and information centered around self-help and finding yourself, it's a bit befuddling that college professsors like Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh hear endless and continual questions of self doubt from the Millennials on college campuses. Yet, it's probably pretty obvious and expected as well. Kids these days are pretty jammed up with perceived pressure of actually being successful someday. Puett and Gross-Loh have offered a fascinating bit of advice in their new book The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us about the Good Life. Their advice is not focused on following their passion or getting into a good college or preparing for a career. It is about living a meaningful life each day. And sometimes that requires approaching life and each day with an "as if" philosophy.

Instead of struggling to be authentic, Confucius proposed another approach: “as if” rituals, that is, rituals meant to break us out of our own reality for a moment. These rituals are the very opposite of authenticity—and that’s what makes them work. We break from who we are when we note the unproductive patterns we’ve fallen into and actively work to shift them—“as if” we were different people in that moment. When you hear your girlfriend at the door and make yourself go to greet her instead of sitting there absorbed in your iPhone, you are creating a break. When you make a point of ignoring your mother’s harping and solicit her guidance, you are recognizing that both of you are constantly shifting and changing and capable of bringing out other parts of each other. Instead of being stuck in the roles of nagging mother and put-upon child, you have behaved “as if” you were someone else. It turns out that being insincere, being untrue to ourselves, helps us to grow.

I really enjoy the idea of living a life and breaking out of our routines by living as if we are someone else. In fact, I see it from the perspective of living "as if you are the person you truly want to be." For me that would probably mean a life filled with more meaningful experiences like arts and culture. The idea of learning to play the piano so I can re-create a piece from Mozart, or of creating a compost garden because that's the impact I want to have on my world, are both appealing ideas. As far as advice for students, I constantly reiterate my advice against "following your passion," and instead focusing on developing skills and talents and knowledge that will make for more significant living.

Writers and researchers like Daniel Coyle and Cal Newport agree with Rowe’s suspicion about following passion. In his book “The Talent Code,” Coyle recommends that students work on developing skills and talents rather than pursuing ideas like passion and personal happiness. In the real world, most people aren’t passionate about work or filled with zeal during the daily-ness of their jobs. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Additionally, following passion is a challenge for young people, many whom don’t have a passion — or at least not one easily linked to a career. Cal Newport concurs in his book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” named after a quote by actor Steve Martin. Martin has written numerous best-selling books, an award-winning play, and is considered one of the premier art collectors in America. He is also a renowned musician whose prowess with the banjo rivals the best in the business.

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