“Nothing is more useful or fitting than to be a normal human being; but the very notion of a ‘normal human being’ suggests a restriction to the average.”
– Carl Jung, “Modern Man in Search of A Soul”
Curiosity, rebellion, moral courage – the traits we usually expect to see in young people, seem to be in short supply among our promising youth. Take a look at college graduates of top universities. We can see that most of them are robotically marching into a couple of the same professions where they will hold the same job titles and try to fit themselves to a handful of standardized descriptions written by corporate managers. They are smart and “excellent”, but are apparently directionless and without purpose (even without the basic idea that it is their job to try to find a worthy purpose). They have formed a legion of, as English professor and literary critic William Deresiewicz calls it, “excellent sheep”.
Deresiewicz points out that parents arrange all kinds of extracurricular activities to help their kids better face fierce competition when applying for universities. Whatever academic or material success ultimately achieved, however, almost has nothing to do with their own individual integrity. Why? Because that life is built on the assumption that one must take a path that is well-populated by herds of sheep. It’s the path of “well, why not just go to a top university, go to law school, become an associate at a firm, and become a partner”. It’s the path of “Oh you don’t know what you want to do after you graduate? Then go into management consulting.”
Deresiewicz makes it clear that there is nothing wrong with any of these standard paths, in and of themselves. It seems that the problem arises when people choose such paths because it’s easier to act like a sheep than actually have integrity. If, for some, becoming a partner at Allen and Overy is the best way to maintain full integrity as an individual, then more power to them.
It may sound harsh to dismiss the majority of people as sheep. It is very very difficult not to act like a sheep, at least some of the time. And some people are perhaps better able to follow themselves than others, depending on their psychology. But acting like a sheep at the expense of your own integrity, is tantamount to lacking basic self-respect. It’s compromising whatever you know to be true, no matter how subtle that is.
This tendency is determined partially by biology and partially by culture. Humans are tribal animals. But just because there are biological determinants to something doesn’t (usually) mean there is nothing we can do about it.
As far as I can tell, softening the sheep mentality, would greatly improve the allocation of resources in society. More people would work on things that they are best suited to do. They would solve problems that they actually think are important rather than doing what is simply expected of them. Money that is spent on education would obviously be much better allocated as well.
From first-hand experience of acting like a sheep, I would say that doing so made me feel weak and confused. I suspect it does for most people at least some of the time (though individual psychology probably plays a big role). Being an ‘excellent sheep’ is, in my view, very much like being a coward. It requires not facing challenges as they really are, only through the lense of how the herd deals with them. In Deresiewicz’ book, that problem is ‘what should I do when I graduate’. But it’s a much greater issue than that.
When you face problems in their entirety and try to parse out whatever you really believe in with regards to them, you will gradually reinforce yourself and become stronger. So next time you feel weak and lost, try to understand – are you feeling this way because you are holding onto thoughts and ideas that are not your own? Are your actions based on what you believe in or ideas from others that, like a sheep, you’ve carelessly welcomed into your life?