Thursday, May 17, 2012

Harvard and the superrat race

Harvard’s alumni magazine carries a feature article reporting on the lives of its undergraduate achievement freaks. Called “Nonstop,” the piece begins with a description of the crazy schedule of a female student who rises long before the sun has done so, has rowing practice at 6:00 a.m., attends multiple activities late into the night – and does this every single day.
Reflecting on this grueling schedule, she “can describe different levels of exhaustion. One level, she explains, is a ‘goofy feeling, like feeling drunk all the time; you’re not quite sure what’s going on. Then there’s this extra level of exhaustion, where you feel dead behind your eyes. The last four weeks, that’s where I’ve been. I get sick a lot’.” As it turns out, this prototypical Harvard superachiever is not exceptional – there are many who confess they sleep 2-3 hours a night. Most were launched on this life trajectory when they were in kindergarten, at the latest. They feel mostly exhilarated, and would rather suffer chronic mental exhaustion than face the specter of boredom. In fact, “exhilarated” (my term) may not quite capture this side of the Harvard experience. That “goofy feeling” and sense of numbness point to a quasi-delusional state and a degree of emotional dissociation that may border on the clinical. Addicted to this lifestyle and level of self-stimulation, a few years ago half of these students would head on to Wall Street. There, they would slug through highly stressful 80-hour work weeks, still loving it. That kind of experience would probably induce in many a mild delirium disrupting their normal emotional processing, risk aversion, and sound judgment. And the rest, as they say, is history – the history of the financial meltdown. Once Aldous Huxley imagined a society in which human fetuses are exposed to different harmful influences in order to different castes of people with different mental aptitudes. It seems the “matrix” has now found – courtesy of brain plasticity – a more ingenious way of selecting and shaping the personnel it needs. In doing so, it gives the alphas – and not just the alphas – a sense of exhilarating freedom and limitless opportunity. Until they are all perhaps shaken awake by the future prophesied in the concluding paragraph of Carlin Romano’s extended rumination, “Will the Book Survive Generation Text?”