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Self Improvement Isn't Only For Elites

A reader objected to the advice below in “Morning Thoughts“, arguing that

Any advice for the average Joe? No special talent, IQ 100, makes his living with his hands and his feet. Has better qualifications than half the population of working age

How about advice for the half who are less qualified than Joe?

Those in the quartile directly above Joe? IQ 105, 2 years of community college, background in retail sales, construction. Works with his hands and his feet.

May I suggest, Professor Mead, that you are only thinking of the nerd minority, the class to which you belong? IQ greater than 115 (probably greater than 125), BA degree, makes his or her living with an educated brain.

In other words you belong to that smart fraction makes the economy go — or, rather, that smart fraction is necessary in order for the economy to grow, but unless you can address the needs of the 80% of those seeking employment as hourly wage workers in non-supervisory positions, may I suggest you are not addressing the needs of the American people.

Another reader countered, writing:

That advice applies to everyone, regardless of education level.

The question is, does government policy help or hinder the young mother who wants to make breakfast burritos in her home to supplement her income so she can make a better life for herself and her kids?

In places as diverse as New York City or here in southern Colorado, embarking on such a simple enterprise is fraught with a tangle of legalities and one must jump through a thousand fiery bureaucratic hoops.

I go with Reader Number Two.  The advice to make the most of your talents applies to everyone.  If anything, people who are constantly being told in school and elsewhere that they are ‘too dumb’ are MORE likely to miss their hidden talents and abilities than those who are constantly being told how special they are.  Not everybody is going to win a Nobel Prize, or quit their day job to write great novels, but almost all of us are capable of more success and happiness than we now enjoy.

As I read the advice, it is not limited to the super geniuses or even the ‘nerds’.  A person with a passion for cooking or gardening may be able to find better ways to make a living than a routine factory job in an industry that is shrinking by the day.  Someone with a gift for empathy and understanding may do more good and have a richer life by going into health care or education rather than working as a clerk in a local store.  Figuring out your real strengths and passions and having the courage to base career decisions on them does not just make sense for the budding Einsteins and investment bankers among us.  It is about living your best life and honoring your Creator by placing the sum of your talents, be they great or small, in the common service as best you can.

Self improvement never has been and is not now a message solely for elites.  The belief that ‘ordinary’ people can live better lives by dint of cultivating their talents and that the capacity for growth and self-direction of the ‘average’ American deserves respect is not, in my book, a mark of elitism.

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  • Silke

    As my millionaire boss in the early 1960s used to pontificate good taste was not a question of money.

    These days IKEA by selling good designs with durable low cost material has proved him right on that one.

    But at the time his remarks were preposterous. And yes I know that Jackie Kennedy and her sister? went to Woolworth to buy checkered blouses but did anybody believe that those blouses worn with other Woolworth stuff would look half as good as they did when combined with first class things.

    The advice of anybody can is always given either by those who have choices or are politicians. Those with the ample choices always pride themselves on knowing how life at the bottom is like.

    Patronizing at its best.

    And no it doesn’t help if you volunteer here and there or have done during your student days if the sheer necessity that your survival as a decent person depends on it is lacking.

  • Silverfiddle

    Thank you, sir, for quoting me. I’m famous now!

    But seriously, it really is sad to see the “Soft bigotry of low expectations” play out on so many levels.

    Institutional barriers are one thing, but when young people cannot imagine a future, it is not just their loss, but society’s as well.

    How many potential Thomas Edisons or George Washington Carvers are out there, trapped by self-imposed horizons?

  • Anthony

    WRM, “Cui Servire Est Regnare” (whose service is perfect freedom) speaks directly to your point. All people can lead better lives by dint of spirit. “It is about living your best life and honoring your Creator by placing the sum of your talents…in the common service as best you can.” Too many have felt low and dispensable and have not improved their self-evaluation – asserting the capacity for growth and negating mild semicontentment.

  • Gene

    When I go for drives in the country and small towns in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania I’m always struck by the number of small side businesses that rural people carry on, posting signs in the front yards hawking their homemade art, foodstuffs, furniture, etc. Presumably most of these folks do not make most of their living selling a few pies or rocking chairs out of their homes, yet they carry on with their own level of entrepreneurship. I can’t help but wonder if that kind of approach to life makes one–when times are tough–a little better able to roll with the uncertainties and disappointments of life.

  • Jim.

    Every American should be able to at least paraphrase the Parable of the Talents.

    The fact that the Bible is not better known in the West is a tragedy, both human and spiritual. That fact that it is not taught more widely is a disgrace.

  • Toni

    Many of the Founders and their successors in all walks of life were autodidacts, not least Abe Lincoln.

    America as a whole used to have an ethic of self-improvement, for its own sake, not necessarily or always for a job or a career. Dr. Mead probably has a better idea than I when and how this ethic eroded.

    Alas, government often offers more impediments than encouragement to would-be entrepreneurs. Remember the crackdown on the kid’s lemonade stand?

    Shoot, I’m sure somewhere even a humble but talented gardener working in a private citizen’s backyard is subject to permits, maybe even a license. The more regulations, the more bureaucrats. The more bureaucrats, the more opportunity for overzealous or petty ones to kill an entrepreneur’s dream.

  • Craig

    Everyone is a genius (in his own way). But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb trees, it will live its whole life thinking it’s stupid.

  • JorgXMcKie

    One of the very best employees I ever had was uneducated [maybe passed the 8th grade], had an IQ of perhaps 80-85, and when I hired him could neither write his own name or tell time.

    He did, however, have excellent work habits and was willing to try to learn anything you gave him. He was dependable as all heck, courteous to the customers, conscientious, and never sat around. [I had to practically force him to take breaks.]

    He eventually became our delivery man and was loved by our delivery customers for all those qualities cited above.

    When we finally had a “customer appreciation” picnic one year, the *customers* got together and gave him a very nice gift [in the form of a largish check] and anointed him “Employee of the Decade”.

    Making the most of what he had. I loved the guy.

  • Bill Peschel

    As I tell my children, if you start out thinking you’ll fail, you will.

    It’s a tough lesson to learn, because it’s at that moment in your life that you can benefit most from support, but the least likely you’ll ever see it. Even a seed gets soil to nurture it into growing.

  • Hucbald

    The presence of genius across the entire bell curve of IQ’s is a subject near and dear to my heart. See, I have a 42nd percentile ability with numbers. That means, in that area, I’m semi-retarded. Probably needless to say, I hated school because of that. Then a guidance counsellor gave me a very detailed standardized test. Turns out my abstract reasoning and all that junk is in the top 1%: My brain works with sounds and shapes, and numbers are mute and invisible. So, I didn’t waste any more time on math, and spent all my time writing music instead (First time I heard Bach, I said, “It’s just so logical!”).

    Everybody should have as concrete a measure of their abilities and lack thereof as possible. Anything other than a detailed standardized IQ test that claims to do that is a lie, IMO.

    Of course, the leftards don’t like objective standardized testing, so there isn’t as much of it anymore. It would be bad to empower students with a knowledge of their abilities because that’s racist… or something.

  • JP McMahon

    While teaching high school for twenty some years, I frequently pointed out to students who weren’t trying very hard in school that the guy they passed on the school bus, standing in the freezing rain with in a florescent vest with a shovel in his hand at 7:30 AM probably didn’t think he would end up that way when he was sitting in the classroom. Most children from modest means who fail to take advantage of the free education being offered to them by our society, no matter how good or bad their schools may be, are dooming themselves to a life of tedious labor that will allow them, at best, to barely scrape by, and from which their will be little chance for escape. Many junior and senior high school students looked at me incredulously when I informed them that they they would have a class ranking number on their high school transcript. The fact they were competing against their peers for academic standing, let alone for a good job, money, and status, seems never to have occurred to them. Anyway, I guess we will always need some guy to work that shovel in the rain.

  • ironmike

    I currently make an income in the upper 5%. My parents made an income in the lower 25%. I managed to improve my economic condition by dint of decades of delayed gratification and dogged persistance of a goal. Despite the fact that I am currently, in midlife, quite financially successful in my profession, I also run a side business with my children in my local farmers market selling homemade chocolates. We enjoy making them together, my teens are learning about how to run a business (hint: if the customer isn’t happy you wont long have a business)and we make a decent additional income stream. Sure, it costs me a Saturday morning (the market) and a Thursday night (making fresh candies), but my kids have saved enough money to fully fund their college accounts. The money I had put aside for their education will now be theirs upon graduation, to use to further their education, start a business, buy a house, what ever they want. So in response to the initial comment as to advice for the average Joe
    1) Have a goal
    2) for go your other pleasures until you have achieved your goal.
    People fail in life because they haven’t done one or both of these things.

  • Jimmy J.

    It is my belief that the purpose of our lives is to find our talents and then develop them as best we can. There are many kinds of talents. IQ is just one measure of a person’s abilities. Mechanical ability, interpersonal ability, athletic ability, fashion sense, business sense, musical ability, etc. We are all gifted with some talents, but a few are truly our forte. That doesn’t mean they are always obvious to us or will be naturally followed.

    When we do discover something we have a giift for, we need to expend the effort to devlop that talent. When we watch a wonderful performance by a figure skater, or a musician, or a master carpenter, we often don’t realize how much hard work, failure, and courage carried them to their level of performance. Having talent is one thing, devloping it often requires hard work and discipline. If it is a God-given talent, though the work willl not seem so onerous.

    Sports competition allows us to learn to build our talent for sports and at the same time accept the fact that not all of us have equal levels of talent. What that should teach us is that even to finish last is no shame, if we have done our absolute best. Finishing last can make us try harder to improve. In the same fashion the winner is pushed to improve by those who finish just behind. Competiton handled with good sense makes everyone better.

    I have long adviocated that parents and schools should overtly teach children that their best interests are served by seeking to identify and develop whatever their talents may be, to the utmost. Even if those talents do not take them to the top of the ladder of material success. The joy of doing what you were meant to do can mean a lot.

    Many years ago the janitor at my high school taught me a lesson in life. His task was on the bottom rung of the skills and earning ladder. But he performed his job in an exemplary fashion. Our classrooms were spotless, the hall floors shone, and the grass was neatly cut. He was always in motion, scrubbing, polishing, sweeping, mowing. He was also always cheerful with a smile and a greeting by name for every student. Though his job was a menial one, he did it with pride and utmost care. I have never forgotten his example.

  • Peter Mayhew

    “We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
    gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?

    Actually, who are you not to be?
    You are a child of God.

    Your playing small does not serve the world.
    There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
    so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
    We are all meant to shine, as children do.

    We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
    It is not just in some; it is in everyone.

    And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give
    other people permission to do the same.
    As we are liberated from our fear,
    our presence automatically liberates others.”
    -Marianne Williamson

  • Luke Lea

    “Every American should be able to at least paraphrase the Parable of the Talents.”

    Speaking of which, the parable of the talents is possibly the oldest text on the theory of capitalism in existence. “To those that have shall be given, from those that have not shall be taken even the little they have,” seems unfair on the face of it. However it expresses perfectly the law of capital markets we see in action on Wall Street, and have seen since the beginning. Those who invest the capital they are entrusted with most profitably and entrusted with more, while those who manage it less profitably lose control of the little they have. That’s what mergers and acquisitions and hostile takeovers are all about. Christianity and capitalism have been closely linked since the beginning.

    One more thing: if you play close attention to the sayings of Jesus you will notice that they are not all directed to the same audience. The parable of the talents for instance is addressed to the servant of a lord, while consider the lilies how they grow is addressed to the peasants in the field.

    It takes labor and management both working together to make the great Tree of Capital grow, until eventually, through the magic of compound interest, it becomes a veritable tree of life whose fruit is our livelihood. It embodies, quite literally, the spirit of Jesus and his followers (or perhaps I should say it re-embodies that spirit), being the accumulated crime and sacrifice of centuries, plus interest.

    At least by my perhaps eccentric readings of the texts.

  • Maureen

    Somebody who can work with his hands (or hers) often has a lot of knowledge and smarts. Just watch somebody unskilled with their hands mess up repeatedly and ludicrously (as I can!), and you’ll see how much talent and learning and hard work is involved.

  • Charming Billy

    I lost my respect for IQ scores when I found out mine. There’s GOTTA be something wrong with a test that says I’m that smart.

  • Charming Billy

    My single parent brother was forced to close his home breakfast burrito business, BTW. I really happens.

  • John Barker

    Yesterday, I bought a painting from a retired teacher who took up art in her fifties. Very devoted to her students,she wrote grants for after school art programs and apparently learned as much as her students since she now has thriving art business here and in San Francisco. I don’t think she is a master but makes very pleasing landscapes and florals somewhat in the manner of Monet.

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