July 2010


It is truly odd what one recalls about growing up.  In my smallish bedroom in my parents home, I recall two items.  It is strange that I don’t recall baseball mits or cards or monopoly games and other pursuits, yet what I recall is a book and a framed quotation on my bedroom wall.

The book was a ragged old copy of The Lonely Crowd written by David Riesman, Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney and published in 1950. The ever-present quotation hanging in front of me was by Rudyard Kipling entitled IF and given to me as a gift by my uncle William J. Liverman.  Next month I might try to unpack some of the intent behind Kipling’s powerful words regarding the important passage into manhood.  But the task for today relates to Riesman’s celebrated work on character.

It is interesting to think about the fact that for much of our lives, all of us seek to please others, someone or some group.  It is the rare person who lives a life for only one audience. Today, our children seem so desperate to fit in and find their place. They will do almost anything to be loved and respected…or in contemporary parlance, ‘not disrespected.’

An extreme example of this came my way in the early 90s.  Ray Chambers and I had launched One to One, a national mentoring initiative that saw mentoring as a promising intervention for young people. I spent a chilling afternoon listening to a group of ‘at risk’ teens who were gang members.  I don’t recall much about those hours other than the fact that the gang members repeatedly voiced their firm position that they would do anything…anything, including killing rivals in order to be respected by their fellow gangsters. Respect trumped even life for such gang members.

I recall my middle son’s first weeks as a freshman at Columbia University in New York.  A truly outstanding place with excellent students who had at young ages achieved so much.  I recall learning of a party for freshman (not an official Columbia organized event), where upon entry the students were asked to do several things that I am certain were contrary to all of the values that enabled them to gain entry to Columbia. Yet in an instant, pleasing this new audience trumped all else. How could that be?

Such findings are stunning on one level. Yet when I examine my own behavior, I find that yes, I too, am a ‘pleaser’ at heart.

Through his research, Reisman identified where individuals look to find direction and affirmation.

  1. Tradition directed. These are individuals who conform to the norms of a clan, caste or some other tight social group. Routine and ritual serve to shape habits and thinking. A good example would be Hasidic Jews who have strict codes of dress and behavior, or likewise the Amish would qualify as a tradition-directed community.
  2. Other directed. The influence of peers is foremost in this social grouping. Individuals in such communities pay attention to social cues from others that are deemed the taste-makers and definers of acceptable behavior. This approach is generally reinforced by various social media including the internet, film, music and popular culture.
  3. Inner directed.  This type of direction is inculcated early in life by dominant elders in a community.  Personal choice is shaped and channeled through a rigid atmosphere which frowns upon choices that are not considered in conformity with a specific group’s thinking.
  4. Autonomous Inner directed. This type possesses clear-cut goals that are internalized, enabling them to stand up to encounters with a constantly changing cultural landscape. Goals for such people are rational, nonauthoritarian and are rooted in clear values yet flexible on the edges.

Bottom line. It is interesting to consider where we ourselves look for acceptance, approval and feedback.  It is far easier to be critical of young people who are not as nimble in masking who they are seeking to please. I recently met with a group of talented interns working on Capitol Hill for the summer.  At the end, one of the young men told me that he worried he had the problem of being a chameleon. He altered who he was to fit each occasion.  It was a big moment for him as he awaited my response. I said, ‘welcome to the club.’ Sadly, to some degree, we all adapt to our surroundings. This is often needed and right, done out of sensitivity to others. But it can be a prison if at your core you simply don’t know who you are and then become the person you perceive others want you to be.

Our goal should be to consistently live our lives authentically, warts and all. We are all broken, often insecure and desperately in need of love and support. You and I are not alone in this journey to be simply us. The irony when it comes to children is this: The best thing that we can do for them is to learn how to live our own lives consistently, staying true to ourselves.  More is caught than taught.  The journey continues….



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