William Deresiewicz

Position, Purpose and the Mid-Life Crisis

April 30, 2021

Russ Ewell

Purpose means doing something, not “being” something.

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz

My young years were filled with selfish ambition. Almost every disappointing or regretful experience in my life can be traced back to selfish ambition, being concerned first and foremost with personal gain and what I could get out of opportunities or relationships.

At one point, around age 35, I remember reflecting on my life and being disappointed by how little I had accomplished. Several of my friends and family were surprised, because in their view my accomplishments were many. This was my mid-life crisis.

Fortunately, my mid-life crisis came early. The lesson I learned is best described by what William Deresiewicz explains as the difference between “doing” and “being.” 

At age 35 I had to face a humbling truth: My mid-life years simmered with the dissatisfying emptiness of someone living for position. Position-motivated people chase status and only find satisfaction by comparison.

My pivot was to develop a disdain for position and a desire for purpose. What I discovered is that satisfaction is found in living a life of purpose where we understand “why we are here” and “what we can do for others.”

Today I write because of what I see and hear from people concerned for spouses, family, friends, and co-workers who are disillusioned. The common observation about those experiencing disillusionment is their dissatisfaction with what they have accomplished.

What follows are two topics of conversation which can help us personally as well as those for whom we care if they are experiencing this type of disillusionment. Whether we are young or old, these conversations about finding our purpose instead of merely seeking a position can help us navigate our mid-life crisis or any other transition period in life.

Purpose Means Doing Something, Not Being Something

Between the ages of 45 and 65, most people begin to question. Gone are the idealistic days of youth. We have worked long enough to have a sense of our level of success. By this point, our capacity for building personal relationships is evident – either we have built enduring friendships and a strong family, or we have not. 

These middle years of life are often times of reflection or regret. Those who reflect tend to understand their current circumstances and then adapt, often reinventing themselves as they turn lemons into the proverbial lemonade.

Regret has an altogether different effect. Consumed by past disappointments, these are those who most often become bitter.

What is the difference between people who reflect as opposed to those who regret? Those who reflect understand what William Deresiewicz means when he says, “Purpose means doing something, not being something.”

Deresiewicz explains it this way in Excellent Sheep: “Becoming a lawyer isn’t a purpose. Becoming a lawyer to defend the rights of workers, or to prosecute criminals, is. Purpose means doing something, not being something.”

On the other hand, those who regret typically view their source of disillusionment as the failure to attain some level of educational or career distinction. They are almost always unaware that their disappointment arises from a lack of purpose more than accomplishment. Helping someone tortured by regret comes down to deep conversations about valuing “doing” over “being.”

In some cases, people need to discover they are like George Bailey in the Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. They are fulfilling their purpose and placing too much emphasis on position or status. In other cases, people need to make a pivot to begin living their life for a purpose rather than a position. Both of these conversations require a radical rethink and redefinition of our lives.

A Radical Rethink to Redefine Our Lives

From working with individuals in the for-profit and non-profit spaces as well as in the spiritual realm, one truth has become clear to me: Everyone experiences some type of mid-life crisis between 45 and 65.

Sometimes the crisis is obvious and disruptive. Our disappointment in life runs so deep that we seek radical changes that have high risks for negative consequences.

We may move to a new company and new city, get a new spouse and have new kids, but we soon discover new gets old. Then that feeling of dissatisfaction returns, because we are trying to “be something in life” instead of “doing something with our lives.”

Rather than making radical and possibly destructive choices, it is wiser to perform a radical rethink. This is a time when we question our motives. Have we been living for “being” or “doing”? Are we in pursuit of a certain “position,” or do we have an actual purpose for our lives? 

Listening to the second of three episodes from my podcast with William Deresiewicz, you will be tempted to think it is only for college students or parents.  This conclusion is incorrect. This episode is for anyone who wants to rethink and redefine.

In this episode, William and I are talking about education. But in truth, we are talking about answering the “Why am I here?” questions of our lives instead of focusing on the “What do I have?” or “How do I compare?” questions. 

Please give this episode a listen, and if you want to go deeper, purchase some of the books written by William Deresiewicz found in the show notes of the podcast series.

Podcast Transcript

Russ (00:00):
Welcome to the lead different podcast. We hope you’re doing well out there and that you’re able to stay safe. And,uif you,udecided to do it and hope you did, you got your vaccine, so you’ll be able to enjoy yourself more. Utoday I want to give you a little intro to our conversation. This is part two between myself and Bill Deresiewicz. It’s, I’ve been very excited about these. I’ve shared them on social media. Uwe’ve got some articles that are coming out that sort of,ucomplimented or take the podcast in a little bit different direction. Utoday’s podcast. The episode two is rethinking and redefining education. You may get done with it and say, well, it’s really about redefining the utility of education, but I like rethinking and redefining education because I actually think this podcast is not just for students or parents or students.

Russ (01:08):
This podcast is for all of us. And it’s even for those of us who are going through midlife, you know, midlife is an interesting thing. Position purpose and the midlife crisis. I’ve written an article on that. You can find it on lead different.com lead diff.com. Here’s a quote from the book, excellent sheep by builder, as wits purpose means doing something, not being something. And you know what, if you read the article and you take a listen to this, I think what you’re going to find is that a lot of life is about finding our purpose. And we began to find that purpose. If we have the college experience, that it helps us to explore the meaning of our life, what we want to do in life, not just what job or what status position we want to hold in life. Anyway, I’ve taken up enough of your time. Go ahead and take a listen. Don’t forget the article position purpose in the midlife crisis. It’s on lead dif.com. And please enjoy listening to this one. Some people say episode two is the best one in the series.

Russ (02:03):
I tell people a big part of going to college is is, is finding out that you’re not as great as you thought you were, and that that’s okay. And that there are some brilliant people that will influence you and make you better. And when I was in college, the reason I, my ears sorta leapes. When you talked about your experience in the Jewish youth group is when I went to college, I worked for the Hill and I worked for I was hired to work at at, at, at at a number of, of the, for the Jewish holidays and different like that, that I can’t remember how I got that job, but I think my best friend was Jewish. And so I, I came from the Midwest and I didn’t know anything about, I actually never known a Jewish person and he started talking and we started talking and it changed what I read.

Russ (02:48):
And that’s where I’m headed. It changed what I read. And one thing led to another. I don’t wanna make the story too long, cause I want to get into some other questions for you is that’s how I discovered this may sound odd. That’s how I discovered Dostoyevsky because I had never, he had never even been on my radar. I grew up in grand Rapids, Michigan. And when I went to the library, the closest thing I got to him with F Scott Fitzgerald, and I read this side of paradise and it was like the first significant fiction book. I was like, wow, I can’t believe it. You know, I felt like I understood myself when I read Dostoevsky. I was like, why am I studying economics? You know, it was like, this guy really thinks. And so when you talk and knowing that your English professor part of my gratitude is that I feel like, I don’t know if you know this or not, but I want to make sure you know it and other people know it is the opportunity to have someone talk to you because reading is listening the opportunity to have someone talk to you and tell you things and you can’t interrupt them.

Russ (03:41):
You have to just keep listening is life-changing. Even if you don’t agree with everything they say, which gets me to excellent sheep. And that, that, that has been the New York times best seller. I think all your stuff, if we could get more people exposed to it would rise to that level as well. But the title, the miseducation of the American elite and the way to a meaningful life. Now my first question I have to ask you, hopefully it’s not uncomfortable is why do, why should we even care about how the American elite are educated? Like why is so much time being spent talking about these people, thinking about these people. And I’m more reflecting. I’m, I’m surrounded by the American elite, but I’m more thinking about people where I grew up, my hometown, who sit there and go, I worked in construction. I work for general motors. I work for Ford and I’m tired of all these people who are elites thinking the world revolves around them. But I think there’s a deep reason that connects to that, of why you wrote that book. I mean, there are many reasons I’m sure.

William Deresiewicz (04:41):
So first of all, I agree with you that the elite spends too much time talking about itself. And when we talk about college, you know, somebody did a study like, you know, Harvard is mentioned like a hundred times more often in the New York times and all the community colleges put together. Something like that may not be a hundred, but it’s a multiple. And I think that’s ridiculous, but I didn’t set out to write a book about college or about America and decide to write about the elite. This is a book that grew directly out of my experience as a Yale professor. And I was addressing people like my students, including my students. It, it matters. I think it matters because it just matters to them. I mean, they are the primary audience and I don’t make any apologies about that. And look, it’s not like it’s a small number of people.

William Deresiewicz (05:25):
It’s been estimated that 10 to 15% of American high school graduates apply to selective colleges. That’s like three or 400,000 kids a year and their families. So I’m talking about all of that. It’s not just Ivy league, it’s selective colleges. The other reason it matters is because for better, for worse and often for worse, we all live in a country. And in fact, we all live in a world, that’s run by the American elite or the American elite and other elites that are allied with the American elite. Many of whom also go to American universities. We all live in this world. And one of the larger purposes of that book is to make that elite see itself more clearly, how they’ve been trained, who they’ve become, how they affect everyone else, how unearned their sense of entitlement is how they need to reform themselves.

Russ (06:20):
Beautiful. I w I, I wanted you to say that because I think it’s important for it to be heard. You know, I have a lot of friends and I don’t know, I guess I’ve traveled in that circle a little bit, who, I think it’s hard to be reflective on who you are. When I first moved to Silicon Valley, I was giving a talk. I forgot where it was, but, and I, I said, you know something about community colleges, it wasn’t disparaging, but it wasn’t like this is on the same level. And, and someone pulled me aside afterwards and said, you know, there are a lot of people. If they can get into a community college, that’s a big deal and that’s going to advance their life. And it changed my mentality. And then I spent some time at one of the community colleges here.

Russ (07:08):
I was actually working out there, but I got to know people and professors that were there and teachers that were there. And I became a champion of it and started trying to get kids who I felt if they went to a four year school, like some of them will be, I want to go to Stanford. And I was like, that’s great apply, but don’t not apply here because almost no one qualified gets into Stanford, let alone, you know the people who may not be rising to that level, and I’ve seen people do that and have a great life. And so I think that, that, that, that changed my life. I think what you’re talking about as far as how the country has influence to me, and then I had not into the politics of, of anything, but part of the political polarization is the inability of those who come from the elite to understand how other people see them.

Russ (07:57):
And I think your book really does that and use this term practical utility of education and the utility of education. And I want you to maybe tease that out for some of our, our, I’ve got some friends that work at companies that are really great guys, but I think sometimes they look and they said this to me, my education didn’t prepare me for managing the emotional lives of my engineers for helping to manage the actual people they are, as opposed to their skills and their talents. And now there’s a big kind of movement in Silicon Valley to get more of an emotional education for their engineers and their leaders. And I, I think that’s fraught with challenge, but if you can just sort of speak to understanding what practical utility is and why education has to be more, and that it’s not too late, even after you graduate to plunge in and do the kind of deep learning that will allow you to have better friendships manage people better even understand your users better. I hope that’s not too many questions.

William Deresiewicz (09:01):
It’s not too many, but I think I need to start by pushing back a little bit. I, one of the things that makes me tear my hair out about American education and not just American, not just college K through 12 is how relentlessly focused it’s become on practicality or utility understood in a very narrow way, understood as how much money are you going to make when you get out, when we’re talking about the individual, how much is this person going to contribute to the GDP? When we think about it as a society, or even worse than the GDP, sort of what’s it going to do? What is this person going to do for their employers? I was on a, on a panel by zoom in Japan, Japan is worried that they don’t have enough universities that rank in the top hundred, because I mean, I think these rankings or whatever, but they kept talking about serving the human resource needs of global corporations, how our university is going to do better serving the human resource.

William Deresiewicz (10:02):
And I finally said, kids, young adults are not resources. They’re not oil and gas fields for corporations to exploit their human beings and they need to be treated as human beings. That’s beautiful. So that’s my first thing about education is that we have to stop thinking of it as supplying the needs of the job market. And more think about it as supplying the needs of young adults understood holistically, not just not just the technical skills that are going to enable them to do a job, which are important, but also first of all, citizenship, which is a word that we used to be really important in American education. And I don’t really hear very much anymore. Right. And second of all, even before your citizenship, all the stuff that we’ve been talking about so far today, like how to become a deeper person and have deeper relationships and, and have a clear relationship with yourself and be able to live a fuller life, or all of your human potentials are, are being maximized to the extent possible.

William Deresiewicz (11:04):
I feel like this is a civil right. I feel like this is a human right. It’s something that societies should furnish its citizens. Just the way that we’ve come to believe that everybody deserves a roof on their is entitled to a roof over their head and enough food and decent healthcare. This to me also is what people deserve. But I do think that there’s overlap between the practical and the humanistic for the reasons that you’re talking about. And, and, and even, you know, even we can go, we can talk about the, even more in that direction, cause you’re talking about leaders and how they become good managers, but it goes well beyond that. Right? All of the human skills that education can furnish are also very powerful in the economy, in the job market, in the work environment, creativity, the ability to think new in new ways about problems that confront you.

William Deresiewicz (12:06):
How do we develop that? I mean, that’s obviously really valuable in the workplace leadership in terms of, yeah. Sort of tuning into the people you’re leading and, and sort of dealing with them as human beings. So you can get, get the best out of them by sort of giving them the best experience at work, you know, as a worker what’s interesting to me is that there are all these courses now and institutes and centers at colleges better designed to teach leadership and creativity. And to me, it’s like the cereal that we used to eat when we were kids. I hope kids don’t eat this cereal kind of cereal anymore. Although I I’m afraid they do. It’s basically sugared flakes of cardboard to wit into which 14 essential vitamins and minerals have been added back because they’ve all been stripped out of the food.

William Deresiewicz (12:59):
It’s not very nutritious, no better to eat food. That those things haven’t been taken out of. Why do we need to add leadership and creativity back, which you can’t do anywhere? You can’t teach a course in leadership and creativity. They’re emerging qualities that come from experience from living. But, and this is the first thing I talk about an excellent sheep, the whole process of getting a kid into a selective college, getting them into Stanford with its 5% acceptance rate has become, you know, it’s like, you know, David Brooks calls them achievement machines, right? Well, if you’re raised to be an achievement machine, your creativity is stifled. Your social and emotional learning has been choked off. You have, I mean, this is what I saw in my students. And this is what motivated me to write the book, how difficult it was for them to develop a sense of purpose, a sense of self, a sense of inner strength, not self-esteem, which is this thing that your parents keep inflating inflated with a constant stream of craze, actual, you know, strengths, strength.

Russ (14:06):
Yeah. The capacity to endure and the character that you’re talking about. I like what you’re saying. And it reminds me of Peter Drucker, the business thinker who, you know, was so influential. I read them a lot and I always feel like I never have a really great conversation until someone pushes back and says, wait a minute, think differently about this, which you did. And I think it’s important. What I’m hearing from you is above all. Pete, we all have to remember that students are people that they’re people first, and it seems so obvious, but it isn’t obvious.