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by Mel Levine
Simon & Schuster, 2005
Review by David A. Flory on Jan 30th 2007

Ready or Not, Here Life Comes

Ready or Not, Here Life Comes! is an uneven yet interesting treatment of an important issue in America today:  the widely perceived lack of preparation for working life among middle and upper middle class young people.

Finding fault with the younger generation is nothing new, but what does appear novel is that there appear to be no shortage of upwardly mobile young people who describe themselves as adrift and badly equipped for the challenges that face them as adults.  Many of their accounts are filled with self-criticism, doubt, and regret, and make a jarring counterpoint to the popular image of the contented slacker.

Levine's take on this situation is very broad in some ways and narrow in others.  He generally eschews thorny psychological or sociological issues.  He writes about young people who are basically mentally healthy and not facing unusual social or financial pressures.  Their deficits, as he describes them, are educational and motivational.

Levine is a well-known specialist in learning differences, and in this work and his well-known books All Kinds of Minds and The Myth of Laziness he stresses that young people learn in very different ways, and that poor performance in school is often the result of a rigid educational system that teaches subjects in ways that suit only one type of learner.  He argues that many students are incorrectly labeled as lazy or unmotivated and miss out on important aspects of their intellectual and social education when their learning idiosyncrasies are not recognized and addressed.  A gifted math student who can solve difficult problems mentally, for example, might be shunted into a remedial class and convinced that he is terrible at mathematics, simply because he lacks the motor skills to line up long hand calculations correctly.

It is an article of faith with Levine that getting the optimal educational, recreational, and social experiences in childhood and adolescence virtually guarantees success in life.  Furthermore, he believes that these formative experiences can be cultivated by parents, teachers and health professionals who are can recognize a learning deficit or undeveloped talent in a child and respond appropriately.

Levine's worldview seems hopelessly idealistic, and indeed his book has nothing to say about kids who face tremendous social, financial, or emotional challenges.  His audience is clearly a narrow range of upwardly mobile parents who don't understand why their 20-30 something son or daughter can't get his or her act together (or who have school-age children and don't want to spend their golden years with a middle-aged teenager in the basement).

The most effective parts of this book are the author's analysis of the most common ways young adults are set up for failure early in their careers.  Levine makes a very persuasive argument that the way we educate college-bound youth is a major contributor to dislocations and malaise in early adulthood.

I especially appreciated Levine's criticism of "well-roundedness."  He makes a convincing argument that children should be encouraged to explore career options early and follow a curriculum that is oriented toward preparation for working life rather than the construction of the perfect college application essay.  This argument is the most substantial part of the book, and I found his reasoning compelling.  The qualities rewarded in the college admissions race seem disturbingly disconnected from the skills employers actually expect from graduates.  A stellar student does not necessarily have good self-knowledge.  The reverse is often the case.  Early scholastic and admissions success often depends on one's ability to fit a single and often arbitrary standard of well-roundedness.  In contrast, success on the job requires knowing one's strengths and weaknesses and choosing the specific task (or job) in which one is most competitive.

Levine has a realistic understanding of the modern working world.  He emphasizes that the days of employer loyalty and lifetime employment are long past, and that young people must be able to navigate through a rapidly changing and often unpredictable labor market.  At the same time, he holds on to what seems to this reviewer to be an oddly idealistic trajectory for a working life.  Startup adults should embrace the drudgery of entry-level employment in preparation for the "main act" of life, beginning in one's late thirties if all goes well, in which they will be "paid for doing what they love."

Levine's ideal of doing one's best in hopes of moving up is good basic advice, but it seems absurd to expect that the average person can expect to be "paid for doing what they love."  This expectation is very modern, very American, and very unrealistic for most people.  Countless jobs have to be done in our economy that are not upwardly mobile and do not reward creativity or initiative.  Given Levine's own data on the unpredictability of modern employment, it is hard to be comfortable with his assumption that work can or should be the principal measure of one's satisfaction in life.

Levine book also leaves a critical question unanswered:  what happens if one falls off the tracks?  Although Levine has cheery advice about U turns always being possible, his vignettes and the overall tone of the book portray an unforgiving world in which those who understand their neuro-developmental profile and try hard always succeed, and those who fall off the rails early in life are doomed to the life of a loser.  This message will not be very helpful to his likely audience of struggling startup adults and their parents.

I think Levine's book could have been more useful and complete if he had more to say about how people can deal with a less than perfect career trajectory.  I certainly can't quarrel with Levine's exhortations to seek achievement and fulfillment in work, but in the lives of people we all know, and in fictional works ranging from Death of a Salesman to About Schmidt and American Beauty, Americans have had to confront the difficult reality that work life is often unfair over the course of a lifetime, not just during the startup years.  Many people, local musicians and the creators of the Linux operating system, to name a few, put in time at work to do their real work on their own time, and the world is better off for them.  Nearly all reasonably happy people have friends, family, or a romantic life that give flavor and meaning to life.  For such people, troubles in the startup years can be compartmentalized and very likely overcome--they need not be the hopeless train wreck of Levine's world, where success in one's career is everything.

 

© 2007 David A. Flory

 

David Flory is a writer and musician with a long-term interest in clinical psychology. He has a B.S. in math from the University of Texas, and he lives in Texas.




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