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Quotation of the Week: Ross Douthat

In place of reckless meritocrats, we don’t need feckless know-nothings. We need intelligent leaders with a sense of their own limits, experienced people whose lives have taught them caution. We still need the best and brightest, but we need them to have somehow learned humility along the way.-–Ross Douthat, NYTimes columnist All this, and from one of our astute, rather maturely insightful Gen-Y columnist. Just the other day I commented to one of my brilliant young friends that his parents had given him the gift of just enough insecurity. Facing phenomenal success in his work, that insecurity provides two especially meaningful personal characteristics, alluded to by Dothat, for today’s world: curiosity and humility. Curiosity: That desire to know and understand that shows itself best in the actions of both evaluating and appreciating knowledge and wisdom. Admittedly, insecurity can sideline us when it reaches into the depths of the soul and constricts our ability to respond to life. But insecurity can also motivate us to become more careful and thoughtful as we go about adding to our store of knowledge and wisdom. It can emphasize the practice of what Kahnemann calls “slow thinking.” One of the hazards we face in difficult decisions is our penchant for the easier one, often without realizing it. Slow thinking, in contrast, not only tells us to become more deliberative in our decision making, but it also emphasizes the necessity of figuring out what our brains are doing as they think. Curiosity, driven by insecurity, has a strong tendency to move in the direction of slow thinking—all for the good. Humility: Not merely that lack of boastfulness or arrogance, but a calculated sense of imperfection that makes us willing to listen to others and celebrate the potential and worth of their insights. It is not the smarmy, manipulative ingratiation that actually exists solely for the purpose of attention and further power. What initiated Dothat’s article was the recent failure of American meritocracy exemplified by Jon Corzine. Dothat’s insight regarding the American meritocracy serves as warning for those of us privileged by our intelligence. But this sudden fall from grace doesn’t make Corzine’s life story any less emblematic of our meritocratic era. Indeed, his rise, recklessness and ruin are all of a piece. For decades, the United States has been opening paths to privilege for its brightest and most determined young people, culling the best and the brightest from Illinois and Mississippi and Montana and placing them in positions of power in Manhattan and Washington. By elevating the children of farmers and janitors as well as lawyers and stockbrokers, we’ve created what seems like the most capable, hardworking, high-I.Q. elite in all of human history. And for the last 10 years, we’ve watched this same elite lead us off a cliff — mostly by being too smart for its own good. The article serves as an apt warning, as well as a partial explanation of the existence of the Tea Party.
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