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Opinion: Columnists

Two new books offer different paths to success

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Opinion,Noemie Emery,Columnists,Books

Envy the young, who can start their lives in the light shed by two fairly new books that in a better world everyone would have had an opportunity to read in their late teens and 20s.

Those would be Charles Murray's The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead (about business success and some more weighty matters) and Megan McArdle's more deftly titled The Up Side of Down.

Murray’s approach is to speak to the young, while McArdle chronicles failure in general. But the ground that they cover tends to be similar, and the lessons they teach are the same. Expect stress and failure, as they will certainly happen; build up resilience, as you will certainly need it; and fight as hard as you can against some human instincts — to take your cues from the herd, to defer facing facts until the last moment, and to cling to your own zone of comfort as long as is possible — as they are counterproductive.

And both fear that overprotective parents (and teachers) are sapping the will from the best and the brightest, and leaving them poorly equipped to face life.

"You have had a deprived childhood," Murray tells the children of a great many professional upper-middle-class people. Their parents, having worked hard to achieve in spite of some hardship, try to insulate their young from any adversity, in search of what McArdle calls the "Whiffle," or ideal existence, in which nothing can ever go wrong.

The result is parents and teachers who are too kind and too understanding, as Murray says, ‘"too caring and wonderful for your own good."

"Because failure doesn’t feel good, we spend an enormous amount of time trying to engineer failure out of our lives and ... our society," McArdle tells us. "Our declining ability to take risks, and to bounce back when things don’t work out, is already beginning to play out ... since we cannot succeed simply by not failing, we should stop spending so much energy trying to avoid [it] ... we should encourage people to fail early and often ... schools don’t teach failure. But maybe they should."

To compensate for this flaw in the schools, Murray urges the young to seek out stress in their lives, to move out, to leave home, to join the armed forces, to join the Peace Corps (as Murray did in his 20s, in Thailand) and ask to be shipped to a far-away country, where you will have to work really hard to adjust. He asks us to compare the maturity of veterans on campus with that of those who have not had their kind of real life experience. The idea is to build stress-handling capacity early, so it will be there for later emergencies. "You can be sure that your resilience will be tested sooner or later," he tells us, and all of these gently-reared people. "When it happens, you don't want to shatter into glittering shards."

"I am a spectacular failure," the successful McArdle now tells us, explaining how she succeeded because of her failures, and what she learned from them. "It would be nice if we could serenely parade from triumph to triumph," but that’s not how life works. The irony is that people who worked to achieve in spite of some hardships try to eliminate stress from lives of their children, not knowing it helped them succeed.

You can correct this by putting these books in the hands of their children. And it won't hurt you to read them yourselves.

Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."
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