The stories recently featured on the site — The Grapes of Graft by Karen Schaefer, Guitar Hero by Cherise Fong, and The Cajun Cellist by Eli Epstein — have something to say about virtues often forgotten in today’s competitive, frenzied society: humility, patience, hard work with no immediate gratification.
New York Times columnist David Brooks has made the case that today’s society has lost the sense of humility that once tempered the greatness of the Greatest Generation. Even on the day that the Allies defeated Japan, what was striking was the absence of gloating, Brooks says. Public pronouncements conveyed humility, a simple gladness that the suffering had ended, and a rejection of the tempting belief that the victors were God’s chosen. The Christian faith of the time saw such pride as the worst of all sins, Brooks says:
… what pride does is it estranges you from God. It makes you desire to be your own God. It weakens the resistance to your own weakness inside and it makes it hard to tap the larger blessings of life, which probably come from outside yourself, from your family, your friends, your neighbors, and your creator.
Even the politicians and celebrities of that era were largely obedient to this faith, Brooks says, believing it to be unseemly to promote themselves or think too much of themselves. For many — Brooks mentions presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower — that belief had been inculcated from an early age. In tight-knit communities that taught kids to remember where they came from from and to never get “too big for their britches.” In bible passages that reminded them that “he that ruleth his spirit” is better than “he that taketh a city.”
Perhaps some of this was false modesty, but the contrast with modern attitudes is striking. In 1950, a Gallup poll asked, “Are you a very important person?” Twelve percent of high school seniors said yes — compared to 80 percent in 2006. Brooks offers some other statistics that describe modern society’s bitter cocktail of self-regard. Troubling levels of narcissism. An obsession with fame. An inflated sense of our own abilities.
In other words, American Idol. Not to pick on that hit show, but, diminished ratings aside, it remains an apt symbol of today’s values, for better and worse. On one hand, Idol reflects the principles that makes the global economy so dynamic and exciting: the relentless search for talent (of the mass-marketable kind) and the reassuring optimism that anyone with ability and drive can make it. On the other hand, it peddles the delusion that anyone, regardless of ability, can make it — and that they should even try. That’s the guilty pleasure of the show’s first part, when we laugh at talentless rubes who somehow believe in their genius. But the “somehow” should really come as no surprise: in 2006, 51 percent of twenty-five-year-olds said that being famous was the most important goal they could have.
As Cherise Fong’s review of the documentary Searching for Sugar Man makes plain, Sixto Rodriguez is the anti-Idol. A Detroit singer-songwriter hailed in the seventies as a genius by music critics and a prophet by apartheid dissidents, he never made it big in the U.S. market, but never seemed to care. He went back to Detroit and took up a career in demolition and construction work. “Nothing beats reality,” he said, when his fans finally tracked him down. “Keeps your blood flowing, keeps you fit.” One reason his story is so compelling is that his humility and yearning for privacy are so out of place in an entertainment industry that increasingly sells the extroverted personalities of its artists — via tell-all interviews and confessional tweets — while focusing its marketing juggernaut on a few big bets, crowding out everyone else. Humble people aren’t usually good at selling themselves, after all.
The breathtaking scale and connectedness of today’s world markets has made the likes of Lady Gaga and LeBron James into global superstars, growing the power and allure of celebrity. Technology helps, too, in that today’s aspiring celebrities just need one viral YouTube video to achieve notoriety. Oftentimes, truly talented people — neglected or fallen along the way — rise to the surface of this crowdsourced pond. But the ease of instantaneous fame makes us forget that much of it is just novelty — a quirky skill or salacious episode that draws clicks — while enduring fame requires exceptional ability but also an even more exceptional drive.
In today’s superstar culture, artists like Sean Grissom seem like anachronisms. In Eli Epstein’s profile of him, we learn that Grissom is a classically trained cellist who has played Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. Yet he still spends his days in New York’s subway stations, busking for stray bills and change. His performances underground help develop his craft, he says. “It’s important to be able to play for everybody,” he says. Craftsmanship, patiently paying your dues, slogging through the day-to-day grind of practice to achieve perfection — all of this is at odds with a marketplace that instantly grants a staggering stardom to the hint of promise.
With the rewards so high, and everyone else around them (adults included) grasping for wealth and fame, no wonder today’s young people come across as materialistic and self-centered in the surveys. And yet they might be happier, and their chances to make a real impact might improve, if they waited and let their talents develop before jumping into the latest get-retweeted-quick scheme. Attention can come too early, and criticism can be too cruel. People need the time and space to make mistakes, think crazy thoughts, invent and reinvent themselves.
Karen Schaefer’s profile of Cleveland writer and businessman Mansfield Frazier tells such a story. When he was young, Frazier saw himself as an outlaw, and he counterfeited credit cards across the country. He was arrested and spent years in prison. Once released, he turned his life around by doggedly pursuing his passion for writing, working his way up to writing for the Daily Beast. Now, in his latest incarnation as an entrepreneur, Frazier is transforming his poor, crime-ridden Cleveland neighborhood by bringing urban farming to its vacant city lots. His first venture: a vineyard.
Properly understood, humility is not about retreating into some corner and hiding your face. It’s not about hating yourself or resenting other’s success. It’s about taking yourself less seriously — maybe even reaching that potent state of mind where you lose yourself to your work — so that you can achieve something of genuine and lasting importance. Working hard at your given skills. Giving something of yourself to your family and community. Recognizing your failings and striving to be a better person. Humility in this way leads us down the path to craftsmanship and compassion, and hopefully, too, to a broader perspective on this life and its blessings. Seen from that mountaintop, the goals of fame and wealth seem nothing more than idols.
Victor Tan Chen is In The Fray‘s editor in chief and the coauthor of The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America.