Obsessed With Success: David Brooks Warns of Cultural Decline

I watch documentaries, not movies. I read history books, not fiction. I use every free moment to accomplish one of the tasks on my never-ending checklist, and am weighed down by my obsession with productivity. An hour sleeping is an hour wasted. And like the rest of 21st century America, I like it.

But this fixation on productivity is an epidemic that is destroying character and transforming men into automatons.

New York Times columnist David Brooks warned American University students of this cultural decline in a speech on April 18. We amputate all things spiritual and emotional in a competitive urge to excel, he said.

"The pressure to succeed professionally, to acquire skills, to do the things you need to do to succeed in an information age economy really became the overwhelming pressures," Brooks said. "And it sort of eclipses the thinking about character and morality."

Many students happily go to college, viewing it as a next step on their ascent to professional achievement. Cramming in as many success-building activities into their schedules as they can, they thrive on keeping busy with little sleep. In 1985, 18 percent of college freshmen said they felt overwhelmed. In 2001, 28 percent said they felt that way -- and this number is surely on the rise.

"Today's elite kids are likely to spend their afternoons and weekends shuttling from one skill-enhancing activity to the next," Brooks wrote in an article, "The Organization Kid." We fear failure more than we desire success, he told AU students.

A century ago, college was about character building. Today, our characters are in decline. We are children of the French Enlightenment, whose thinkers separated reason and emotion. Philosophers of this era put reason on a pedestal as man's best guiding principle.

"It is almost impossible that our judgments can be so correct or solid as they would have been, had our reason been mature from the moment of our birth, and had we always been guided by it alone," wrote Rene Descartes in his Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences.

We are experts on economics, material things and professional skills. We fail to discuss and understand relationships, emotions and all things spiritual, Brooks said.

Philosopher Karl Popper divided the world into two categories: clocks and clouds. Clock problems are those that can be taken apart, examined and solved through deductive reasoning. Clouds cannot be taken apart. Cloud problems represent holistic systems that need to be understood in a different way.

"When we have a cloud problem, we try to turn it into a clock problem," Brooks said.

And in a reason-oriented culture, adding titles to one's resume becomes an obsession. At American University, 85 percent of seniors (and 89 percent of business majors) graduate with at least one internship under their belt -- experience which is often helpful (and increasingly expected) to a student's future career, but can sometimes draw focus away from academics.

To prevent the death of man's character, Brooks urges rediscovering our human natures through falling in love. And by love he means love for a task, job, or another person.

"Synchronicity is key to happiness," he said. Rather than neurotically increasing our long lists of accomplishments, we need to lose ourselves in what we do, and success will come on its own.