“It’s about the bling and how quickly you can get it without working.”

I was listening to an interview with Entourage star Adrian Grenier today about a documentary he’s completed that looks at the role of celebrity in our culture. It’s no secret that a lot of us have an unhealthy relationship with people we don’t even know (or, perhaps more accurately, people we think we know.) But it’s still surprising to me just how screwed up we’ve become.

Consider the shock and betrayal people felt when the truth about Tiger’s exploits hit the tabloids. Or how irate we became when Mel Gibson’s mouth opened and we learned just how deeply his odd hatred runs. For some reason, many felt these were personal affronts, as if Tiger wasn’t only cheating on his wife, he was cheating on the rest of us, too.

Why should we care? If we didn’t put them up on their false pedestals to begin with, would it matter to us? Every day, people are doing depraved things to people that they are supposed to love, honor, and cherish; yet few of us even know of their transgressions. It’s only with celebrity that we feel that they owe us something. And maybe they do, in some respects, since we have given them the celebrity they craved and the financial success that sometimes comes with it. Maybe the covenant that they made with us is that they will respect us as much as we respect them. (Personally, I don’t think that’s how it works. I think we should be all looking a little closer to home for our heroes… parents, teachers, service members, firemen, policemen, etc. all do more for us everyday than Paris Hilton has done in 20 years. If you have any doubt, consider Mr. Stroup.)

It’s bad enough that we (and ‘we’ in this sense could be read as ‘people who should know better’) give too much credit and too much influence to people who likely don’t deserve it. What’s more disturbing is how our children feel. In Grenier’s documentary, he references an eye-opening study that looked at how teenagers view the celebrity world and how it affects their goals. Cited in Jake Halpern‘s book Fame Junkies, it “asked middle school and high school students whether they’d rather be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a president of a college, a Navy Seal, or an assistant to a celebrity,” Grenier recalls.

The result? Forty-two percent said they’d want to be a celebrity’s personal assistant. As Halpern says, in the film’s voice-over: “That was twice as [the percentage who wanted to be] president of Harvard or Yale, three times as much as a U.S. Senator, four times as much as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.” These kids, Halpern continues, “put such a premium on fame that they’re willing to give up some of the most coveted jobs in America just to be a bag-carrier to the celebrity.”

Grenier agrees. “For a long time in our culture,” he says, “there was an emphasis put on working hard and contributing to your society. Now it’s not about that anymore. It’s about the bling and how quickly you can get it without working.”

If that’s not a searing indictment of our culture, I don’t know what is. There’s a great Kurt Vonnegut quote that says “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” That may well be true, but at the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I’ll be truly terrified when people more concerned about fame than hard work or service are running the country.

I wonder if we’re already there.

14 Rules Your Kids Won’t Learn In School

Family photos
Image by The Cotas via Flickr

Sure, school is great. Kids will learn a lot of things they need to know. But regardless of the quality of the education, there are simply some things they’ll need to learn at home. From you. So you’d better get busy.

To help you get started, I thought I’d share this list of 14 Rules Your Kids Won’t Learn in School. It was originally written by Charles Sykes, author of the 1996 book Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, Or Add. This list didn’t appear in that book, but was actually a newspaper article that in turn spawned a second book, 50 Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School: Real-World Antidotes to Feel-Good Education. I know you don’t have time to read all 50 things, and you’re not likely to get your kids to read them either, so here are the original 14 for both of you to chew on. I suggest you print them out and put it on the fridge:

Rule No. 1:  Life is not fair. Get used to it. The average teen-ager uses the phrase “It’s not fair” 8.6 times a day. You got it from your parents, who said it so often you decided they must be the most idealistic generation ever.   When they started hearing it from their own kids, they realized Rule No. 1.

Rule No. 2:  The real world won’t care as much about your self-esteem as much as your school does. It’ll expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself. This may come as a shock. Usually, when inflated self-esteem meets reality, kids complain that it’s not fair. (See Rule No. 1)

Rule No. 3:  Sorry, you won’t make $40,000 a year right out of high school. And you won’t be a vice president or have a car phone either. You may even have to wear a uniform that doesn’t have a Gap label.

Rule No. 4:  If you think your teacher is tough, wait ’til you get a boss. He doesn’t have tenure, so he tends to be a bit edgier. When you screw up, he’s not going to ask you how you feel about it.

Rule No. 5:  Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping. They called it opportunity. They weren’t embarrassed making minimum wage either. They would have been embarrassed to sit around talking about Kurt Cobain all weekend.

Rule No. 6:  It’s not your parents’ fault. If you screw up, you are responsible. This is the flip side of “It’s my life,” and “You’re not the boss of me,” and other eloquent proclamations of your generation. When you turn 18, it’s on your dime. Don’t whine about it, or you’ll sound like a baby boomer.

Rule No. 7:  Before you were born your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way paying your bills, cleaning up your room and listening to you tell them how idealistic you are. And by the way, before you save the rain forest from the blood-sucking parasites of your parents’ generation, try delousing the closet in your bedroom.

Rule No. 8:  Your school may have done away with winners and losers. Life hasn’t. In some schools, they’ll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. Failing grades have been abolished and class valedictorians scrapped, lest anyone’s feelings be hurt. Effort is as important as results. This, of course, bears not the slightest resemblance to anything in real life. (See Rule No. 1, Rule No. 2 and Rule No. 4.)

Rule No. 9:  Life is not divided into semesters, and you don’t get summers off. Not even Easter break. They expect you to show up every day. For eight hours. And you don’t get a new life every 10 weeks. It just goes on and on. While we’re at it, very few jobs are interested in fostering your self-expression or helping you find yourself. Fewer still lead to self-realization. (See Rule No. 1 and Rule No. 2.)

Rule No. 10:  Television is not real life. Your life is not a sitcom. Your problems will not all be solved in 30 minutes, minus time for commercials. In real life, people actually have to leave the coffee shop to go to jobs. Your friends will not be as perky or pliable as Jennifer Aniston.

Rule No. 11:  Be nice to nerds. You may end up working for them. We all could.

Rule No. 12:  Smoking does not make you look cool. It makes you look moronic. Next time you’re out cruising, watch an 11-year-old with a butt in his mouth. That’s what you look like to anyone over 20. Ditto for “expressing yourself” with purple hair and/or pierced body parts.

Rule No. 13:  You are not immortal. (See Rule No. 12.) If you are under the impression that living fast, dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse is romantic, you obviously haven’t seen one of your peers at room temperature lately.

Rule No. 14:  Enjoy this while you can. Sure parents are a pain, school’s a bother, and life is depressing. But someday you’ll realize how wonderful it was to be a kid. Maybe you should start now. You’re welcome.

Be true to your principles, or solve the problem?

Malcolm GladwellI really enjoy reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s work. His approach to looking at problems is fresh and interesting, and he’s able to draw correlations that are not only unusual, but incredibly insightful. I find I’m often struck by the obvious relationship one thing has to another after he’s made it clear. This just happened to me as I was reading an article originally published in The New Yorker and republished in his book “What the Dog Saw.”

The article was about homelessness, specifically the cost of homelessness, both in the humanitarian sense and dollars-and-cents-sense. He explores the notion that many of us have about the homeless: that it’s a problem with a normal distribution (a bell curve) that represents a huge mass in the middle that accounts for most of the problems. Recent studies suggest, however, that homelessness is really what they call a power law distribution that is shaped more like a hockey stick, with a relatively small number of ‘hard core’ homeless that drive the cost. In fact, according to a study done by Dennis Culhane in the 1990’s, more than 80% of people in shelters are in and out very quickly. “In Philadelphia,” Culhane says, “we found that the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. The second most common is two days.”

Gladwell points out that when we perceive problems to have a normal distribution, the resulting impression is of something that is too big to fix, so we treat the symptoms instead. But if the problem has a power law distribution, then it’s possible that it’s a big problem caused by a relatively small number of people. In other words, the problem itself could be fixed.

In Denver, this is exactly what they’re trying to do about homelessness. Realizing that they need to get these chronically homeless off the streets (and, subsequently, out of the health care system, which is where they are really costing the rest of us the most), Denver officials have begun giving them apartments. And this approach makes perfect sense economically: it’s far cheaper to pay someone’s rent than to continually pay to for the health care costs associated with them being on the streets. In fact, the article was originally titled “Million Dollar Murray”, a reference to one chronically homeless man in Nevada who cost the state more than a million dollars over ten years of homelessness.

The problem with solving a power law distribution like this is that, while it makes sense economically, it doesn’t seem fair morally. Gladwell says:

“Thousands of people in the Denver area no doubt live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand – and no one offers them the key to a new apartment. When the welfare mom’s time on public assistance runs out, we cut her off. Social benefits are supposed to have some kind of moral justification. We give them to widows and disabled veterans and poor mothers with small children. Giving the homeless guy passed out on the sidewalk an apartment has a different rationale. It’s simply about efficiency.”

“There isn’t enough money to go around, and to try to help everyone a little bit – to observe the principle of universality – isn’t as cost-effective as helping a few people a lot. Being fair, in this case, means providing shelters and soup kitchens, and shelters and soup kitchens don’t solve the problem of homelessness. Our usual moral intuitions are of little use, then, when it comes to a few hard cases. Power-law problems leave us with an unpleasant choice.”

And then he followed up this argument with the sentence that still has me pondering this whole notion, more than two weeks later:

“We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.”

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