NEARSIGHTED

If it is impossible to understand a place completely without having lived there, then I guess I know the Midwest and not much else. Sure, I've moved around, but mostly around the region. This hasn't been intentional. It's a matter of where my academic and professional opportunities have been. Now that I teach here, there are a lot of frustrating reminders of one of the worst things about Midwesterners: being modest to a fault, and screwing themselves in the process. We aim low for the same reasons we buy shitty American cars even when we can afford better ones: because nothing is worse than being cocky. If we don't revel in mediocrity, our friends and neighbors are more than happy to knock us down a peg.

One thing I like about my current job is doing advising. Many schools have dedicated advising staff, but this way the faculty and students get to know one another a little better. It is, however, endlessly frustrating to try to get students to expand their worldview beyond central Illinois. As I have told them many times, the biggest difference between them and students at a fancy name brand East Coast university is not intelligence but ambition. Given equivalent academic skills, the student from Williams or Villanova or NYU wants to move to The City and be a big shot; my students want to move back home. Those students want to go to law school or to get a Master's and they aim for Ivy League schools; mine apply to unranked programs "close to home", i.e. in the middle of nowhere. It's not a question of resources, either, as the people I deal with are more than average in that area. It's the fact that no one has encouraged them to do anything for their entire lives except to live At Home. Aiming high to them means getting a middling law degree and then moving back home to work at the county courthouse on the square.

If that's the life people want for themselves, then that's great. More often I get the feeling that it's less the life they want than it is the only life they can conceive of, which isn't great. Maybe I can't explain this well enough to make sense to anyone else, but it's hard to hear the same excuses I've made all my life: it's too expensive, it's too far away, I'm not good enough for that. Is going to law school at Stanford or Harvard expensive? Sure is. But for that price you get to do whatever the hell you want for the rest of your life while getting paid well to do it. Which is, you know, a pretty good trade off.

It's not rare for college-aged people to be lacking in life experience and limited in worldview, so in that sense there's very little unique about my experiences. I simply never expected to be in the position of having to inflate their expectations. I assumed they'd all be aiming too high and I'd end up having to talk them down to something more realistic. This is a weird issue for me because more than anything I wish someone would have encouraged me to aim a little higher when I was younger, so I don't doubt that I'm projecting a little. Most of all, though, I want students to give themselves options so that whatever life they end up with does not make them feel trapped.

We tend to dislike people from the coasts for being egotistical and full of themselves, but honestly we would benefit from taking a page out of that playbook once in a while. In grad school a professor explained to me and my cohort that one of the reasons we (public school kids) have a hard time competing with the Ivy League kids is that they've spent their whole lives learning how to talk about how great they are and we've spent our lives downplaying and underselling anything that makes us stand out. It's not a difference in ability – although that factors in as well – it's a difference in attitude. It took a while to appreciate just how right he was.

66 thoughts on “NEARSIGHTED”

  • As someone who studied at Washington State, then Stanford, then the University of Wisconsin-Madison, my experience matches yours. Even my fellow grad students, enrolled in a very highly rated program, seemed to have no ambition or goals. It puzzled me and still does.

  • What you're born into determines expectations to some extent. The silver spoon sips ambrosia, not Dr. Pepper. Born in a flat land place no one would emigrate to? Eh. You're all right with Netflix or Friday night movies. A degree in something. Making a living forging a career a family in a fog and you know deep down you're really really fucked. Your weird aunt and uncle live within reach. Your parents are around, somewhere.
    These are spontaneous images that pop up like quicksand burps and bubbles after reading about this segment of Americana.
    Not depressed, just kind of flattened. But still curious.
    Pardon. Time for late night tea. Thanks.

  • What was weird of me is that I really go invested in "going to a good school" in high school but in college I didn't put anywhere near as much thought into was I was going to do after I graduated. Just though things would take care of themselves I guess. I ended up doing OK but will have a lot of stuff to teach my kids when they're older that my parents never taught me.

  • Huh. I grew up in the DC area and got to know plenty of incredibly insecure 20 somethings from Bumfuck, Nebraska who were kind of grossly overbearing in terms of striving and name-dropping. (Hint: think first-year Republican congressional staffer.)

    YMMV.

  • It is unfortunate that too many kids don't even seem to consider the possibilities – or to even be aware they exist.

  • Good points about ambition. Here in the UK, the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, about a third of the Cabinet, the Mayor of London, and one of two main candidates to be the next Mayor of London, all went to the same high school: Eton.

    Why is this? Wealth and connections help (Eton is seriously upper-class), but there are lots of schools for the rich and well-connected. The distinctive thing about Eton is that it explicitly sets out to train leaders. Its students are told their mission is to be exceptional, and a great many of them reach high office as a result.

    Ed may be seeing a selection effect though. The students who wanted to get the hell out of central Illinois, and had the means to do so, probably did it as undergrads. Even if they lacked the money, ambition, or grades for Stanford or Princeton, there are plenty of less famous colleges in the big coastal cities. The ones Ed meets are, for whatever reason, reluctant to leave "home". But it's right for them to at least consider living somewhere else.

    Personally, I grew up in Alberta, which is like central Illinois but with harsher winters. I now live a long way off in a global centre of research excellence (Cambridge, UK). I'm very happy with my life and career here, but it comes at a cost. I've barely seen my (now very elderly) grandparents in 20 years, and they aren't getting to know my son. I'm not judging those people I know who went back, or never left. At the risk of going all Frank Capra, it's not an obstacle to having a happy and meaningful life.

  • I live in one of those despised coastal areas with a lot of IT, bio and biotech, military and federal gov't jobs. I agree with wetcasements; when you meet someone from the midwest, they're quite likely to be full of themselves and masters of the humble-brag, so PROUD that they are not from one of the coasts because, you know, only Rill Murkkkuh has values. They also will not shut up about how much they hate this area, which always makes me point out that they're free to leave at any time and go back to Hooterville where there are no jobs and no social activities or entertainment. That really pisses them off.

  • Ed, keep doing what you're doing–undoubtedly you're reaching your students! I had an adviser in college who knew me well enough to say "You know, I think you'd be really good at X, and have you considered Y or Z? They'd all be good paths for you to take." At 18, students often don't even know what they don't know.

  • I agree with Talisker's suggestion of a selection effect. I spent a bunch of years teaching just up the road from Ed, at a school that is similar in some ways but that has a somewhat broader national/international draw (Knox); the school was still dominated by students from the Midwest, but they were by and large students that *could have* gone elsewhere, and I really did not see the effect he's talking about. I now teach at a smaller school in the Virginia public system, and our student body is overwhelmingly in-state and made up of students who, for a variety of reasons, didn't have as many options. I see Ed's described effect much more here than I ever did in Illinois. (I had a student once here who was interested in grad school, but without further prodding had only considered grad schools in Virginia! I couldn't believe it. But it was just the sort of nearsightedness Ed's talking about, and we had a good conversation about that.)

  • I grew up in Montana and desperately wanted to go to school anywhere but Montana and I simply couldn't afford it. My husband is from central IL (we met in undergrad at the University of Montana). I had to do my MA in Montana as well because of cost (Montana State). When I was accepted into LSU for a PhD, you bet I high tailed it out of Montana (and haven't looked back). Louisiana was a great experience and now I'm in Milwaukee, WI.

    My Montana students were far more open to the idea of leaving the state and experiencing the world than either my Louisiana or Wisconsin students. You find Montanans everywhere simply because we never thought staying in Montana was a viable option. I think it's the rootlesness and wanderlust that living in a giant state with no people instills in you. The Louisiana kids were far more attached to their place, to the point where getting a job north of I-10 was frightening. The thought of not being an hour away from NOLA was too much. The Wisconsin kids just don't seem to understand why you wouldn't want to stay in Wisconsin. It's not that they can't conceive of living somewhere else, it's more that someplace else isn't Wisconsin and that's weird.

  • I grew up in a nice place – Chicago suburbs, but I got as far as away as I could as fast as I could.

    My in-laws live in Appalachia (Southeast Ohio). It's a pretty area, but economically and culturally it's West Virginia. There is no opportunity there. Any decent jobs there might have been fled long ago. It gets rougher looking every time I go down there. Lots of burned out house trailers where they may have been "cooking" something, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

    Circleville Ohio once boasted four manufacturing plants and I think they're down to one, which isn't running at full capacity.

    Yet none of them want to leave and none of them seem to have any ambition beyond working whatever crappy jobs Vinton County (Pop 13,000) might have to offer.

    They could come up here to Columbus (60 miles away), where we actually have a pretty robust job market, but that would involve going to "the big city" (gasp!).

  • For those that don't know, north of I-10 is anything north of Baton Rouge, including Shreveport, Alexandria, and Monroe. So for most of my LSU students, the very thought of going any farther north than Baton Rouge was insanity. Why would you leave southern Louisiana? They'd been taught that they were so super special that nowhere else in the country could possibly appreciate or understand them. It was a weird mentality as someone who'd been planning an escape from their home state since they were 14.

  • I'm from the east coast, but from a small town, and went to a state school in the middle of nowhere-NY and this pretty well describes me and how I've often felt about my education. Some friends from high school went to Ivy League schools, and they and their classmates just showed so much more imagination than me and those at my school. When my senior year came to an end I had no idea what I was supposed to do with myself. It took getting to grad school to meet a new cohort of people who went to places like Williams, Haveford, Harvard, etc. to get a better idea of what ambition truly looked like, and to give me a jolt of imagination in thinking about what I could do. Still, I've not quite shed that underselling myself mentality…it is just sort of ingrained.

  • @jeneria; would you care to share more of your experience? I find this really intriguing, enough so that I shot an email to one of my cousins (a member of the family ended up at Tulane in the 1950s, met a local girl, got married, and spawned a whole branch of the family that mostly lives there now). The cousin is now in Dallas working an IT job, but would like to return to the NOLA area. My impression based on what I've seen and stories I've heard is that New Orleans is not considered "real" Louisiana–for one thing, it's very cosmopolitan and always has been. For another, it's got a high concentration of (whispers) CATHOLICS, which really seems to piss off the rest of the state. My cousin's take on it is that if you've grown up celebrating festivals and living in a vibrant city, of course you don't want to go north to the rest of the state where people will hate you for not being "Rill Murkkkun".

  • I believe that what Katydid (accurately) describes as the "Rill Murkkkuh" (three "K"s, I see what you did there) maybe comes down to whatever the opposite of swiftboating is. Let's call it 'Mericanism. Swiftboating takes a positive and denigrates it into a negative. 'Mericanism takes a negative (the fact that you live in a fucking depressing wasteland of industrial collapse, crumbling infrastructure, and repressively bland cultural hegemony), and turns it, by sheer willpower and the refusal to acknowledge the truth, into a source of pride. (Note: I commute to work near Youngstown, OH, so–ground zero, me.)

    Ambition is indirectly proportional to despair. When the manufacturing economy up and went, hope died for most of these people. Yeah, some people will always look around and say "This place sucks–I'm out"–but when you're raised in a place that's flat and gray and where the best times of one's life are spent at Applebee's–it's hard to avoid soul-death by the time one reaches one's teens.

    So you stay, and because the human ego needs some kind of fuel to get through the fucking day, you tell yourself you're living in the REAL world, the REAL America, the greatest country in the world. Because if you can convince yourself that, when you look around, this is as good as it gets–well, that's just about the only thing that makes it all bearable.

    That and meth.

  • @Katydid
    My LSU non-NOLA students didn't want to live in NOLA but they didn't want to live very far away from the NOLA-atmosphere. As a transplant, I can say NOLA infected me much like your cousin. Unfortunately making a living in NOLA isn't easy and it's a tough, tough city to survive in. So I visit once a year, in the off-season, to cut down on costs.

    NOLA isn't like the rest of Louisiana just like Missoula, MT isn't like the rest of Montana or Austin, TX isn't like the rest of TX. It's a blue spot in a sea of red. But the bon vivant attitude runs through southern Louisiana and mixes with the Cajun influence. It's a very distinct culture. In many ways southern LA feels like a foreign country minus all the inconveniences of currency and language.

    Louisiana is mostly Catholic and Baptist, doesn't really matter where you go.

    And Major Kong is right, Shreveport might as well be TX.

    It was just so weird to me that very few of the LSU kids would even entertain getting jobs outside of southern LA. When they did, it was a lot of anxiety and their families kind of freaked out. I mean, I had one kid get a job in Houston (5 hours from Baton Rouge) and his family acted like they were never going to see him again.

    The Wisconsin families seem excited for their kids to get out of Wisconsin, but kids here like the booze culture, the music festivals, and in Milwaukee there's a ton of Peter Pan Syndrome sufferers. When you live in a city with 8 colleges and a graduation rate of 50% it's hard to make the jump to adulthood.

  • I grew up in a rust belt city that now has half the population it did when I was growing up, long ago enough that girls were roundly discouraged from any ambition other than getting married and having babies. By a force of will I still can't believe I could summon, I got a scholarship to a college on the East Coast and Left Home, a major sin in my family's estimation. The rift has never entirely healed. I'm closer to my friends' families than to my own. For some people, leaving family and familiar surroundings is unthinkable, and it doesn't mean their souls are dead. As Frost said, home is where they have to take you in. For many people, that sense of belonging lays a foundation of the self that can be replicated but never entirely replaced.

  • It's a Midwestern thing that's not limited to the middle of nowhere. Both Ed and I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and we both feel this. I suspect a lot of those kids Ed is advising grew up in Midwestern suburban households as well.

  • For many people, that sense of belonging lays a foundation of the self that can be replicated but never entirely replaced.

    Currently reading The Theory of Moral Sentiments [who isn't, of course], and last night waded through the discussion of familial ties, and how crucially important it is to be present during the day-to-day interactions. That relatives separated for whatever reason, even when reunited, do not possess the easy empathy and affection toward their family members that is derived from years of living in proximity to one another. I.e., it's the proximity, not the "blood" that matters.

    Plus, an entertaining discussion of Scots Highlanders and similar barbarian aboriginal clans worldwide.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I grew up in NYC, but when I was 11, we moved to the Mid-Hudson Valley.
    Beautiful area!

    After finishing HS, my grades weren't great, but my SAT and NY State Regent's tests results were through the roof.
    Plus, in the Spring of my Senior year, my mother had breast cancer, so I decided to stay local for a while, and wentb o Marist, which not only accpted my NY Regents scolarship, but matched it, and doubled it.
    After my Freshman year, and great grades, I decided I wanted to go to Columbia. I met with our Dean of Students, and he convinced me to stay.
    As soon as I graduated, I moved back to NYC, and actually used my degree!

    I was happy that I stayed. Back then, Marist was a good small college, and I benefited from the small class sizes. Had I gone to Columbia, i might he been lost in their huge classes.

    Sometimes, it's better to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, than a small fish in a huge pond!

  • This whole thing with the attitude of some folks in the Midwest and "heartland" of this country… reminds me of this thing which I read about here:
    https://thepeoplestherapist.com/2012/02/01/the-clerkship-archipelago/
    Imagine having to live out there for a year or so because of your job. Read the whole thing, but here's just a sample…
    "If you’re like most educated people, you’ve absentmindedly noticed at some point that the United States occupies a wide tract of land. There’s a lot of that stuff in the middle – the zone with the empty square states they use for missile practice, and those ones in the South where they sprayed black people with fire hoses and sicced dogs on them (as featured in your high school history textbook)(unless you went to high school in the South.)

    Yeah, those places.

    I am scrupulously non-partisan in these columns – no one can gull me into revealing my sympathies. But I will say this: the frightful wasteland situated between the civilized portions of our nation is dominated by a political party whose platform includes a Constitutional Amendment to outlaw gay marriage. Yeah. They want to alter the founding document of our nation to bash gays. Feeling all warm and fuzzy? Get used to it. If you clerk, and your judge is posted in fly-over country, then so are you.

    Welcome to the “real” America. Welcome to the wackadoodles. Welcome to wackadoodleville."

    Oh, and speaking of which: Ed, funny you should mention some people going for a law degree, because I somehow found your own blog through the law school scam blog movement (one of your blog posts was linked in someone else's). And interestingly enough, one interesting idea which I've been hearing for years is the suggestion for struggling law grads to leave the crowded cities and escape the glutted legal job market to find work in more rural areas. But from what I can tell, that doesn't really work.

  • I grew up very close to where I now live, the East Bay Area (across the bay from San Francisco). My elementary school was so close to the water, the playground had seagulls instead of pigeons. I went to the closest university, UC Berkeley.

    I've visited many parts of the country, but never saw anything that made me want to move. Curiously, my most ambitious sibling achieved his career goals by being willing to move to San Antonio, and later Tulsa. Tulsa! I plugged away at my safe, secure civil service job here for twenty four years, never getting higher than GS-7, because advancement was largely dependent on being willing to move to other postings.

    I definitely think that my disinclination to leave this area has affected my life, but I'm comfortable with that.

  • H.M.S. Blankenship says:

    I grew up in what Tom Wolfe (the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test guy) called a 'teen burger hamlet' in Kansas, & got out as soon as I could, but only as far as Lawrence (Univ. of KS). Like many of Ed's students, I probably would have been happy to lurk around the campus for the rest of my life, if not for a fortuitous kick in the ass. I hope some of those midwestern kids also experience a fortuitous kick in the ass. Unplanned chaotic change sometimes works out OK.

  • I remember the movie "Boys Don't Cry" being a real eye-opener for me. Not because of the transgendered issue, or the violence… I knew both of those things existed. But because of it's realistic portrayal of small-town live and the small-town mindset. When the two main characters, played by Hillary Swank and Chloë Sevigy, lie on their backs after making love and dream of the life they'll have someday, their dreams are so, so small. Very small, sad dreams. "One day we'll have a trailer and you'll be an assistant manager at Wal-Mart" kind of dreams. And I think that's accurate. Humans in general suffer from failure of imagination, and it holds us back in so many ways that its difficult to quantify.

  • I can’t be objective about Midwestern humility and lack of ambition. Too close to home. Still, I have plenty of experience with wanderlust. My own rootlessness led me away, though not nearly far enough. (I so wanted to leave the U.S. behind at one point.) My family is now splintered and spread all across North America (literally coast to coast), which is a story familiar to lots of Americans chasing dreams and opportunities. Major trade-off. In some respects, I can well appreciate the rootedness of places like Wisconsin and Kentucky. Moreover, the false sense that nothing ever happens in flyover country, that all the action is on the coasts, is risible. One can be a soulless zombie anywhere; D.C. and Silicon Valley (both principal drivers of ideological whackness) are full of them.

    No question that the industrial economy that replaced the earlier agrarian one had an unexpectedly short lifespan (i.e., Flint, MI). The lack of opportunity in hollowed-out industrial towns and cities is sorely felt. Service and information economies are likewise already transitioning toward a pure grift economy. However, many Midwestern locales still exhibit a pastoral charm that works, unlike the pointless bravado of the coasts. Coastal cities are unlikely to gleam for much longer, as dynamics point to dissolution and decay somewhat later than what has already occurred in the Midwest.

  • Granted I technically grew up on the East Coast (Semi-rural Georgia), but the colleges I attended (Ga Tech and UGA) were pretty well stocked with people who had an extremely high opinion of themselves.

    When I visit friends back home I'm always shocked at the small town drama, but having said that, living in DC now and until recently super-commuting 4 hours a day, I fantasize a lot about finding a sleepy semi-retired job in a relaxed community and getting some chickens. Some of us are just wired differently, I guess.

  • Also, there's an entire industry in this country dedicated to demonizing the "intellectuals", "big-city values", "know-it-all professors and teachers", etc. It's no wonder people can't consider bettering themselves when it would mean joining the ranks of people they've grown up thinking of as everything that's wrong with this country.

  • @J. Dryden: Swiftboating! Exactly! Thank you for putting so succinctly what I was stumbling about trying to say! I used to feel like I had "no dog in the fight" because I grew up mostly overseas as part of a military family, then lived overseas as an adult, and now live in the south, but I get so very, very tired of being attacked for my geographical location (a place that happens to have a job for me that pays my bills) by people who are sure they're superior because…they come from a place that's dreary and grim? Seriously?

    @jeneria: I'm second-generation American, as is my cousin who lives in Texas now. His father, a first-generation American, left NYC to go to college at Tulane and married into a longtime NOLA family. I'm pretty sure my uncle felt comfortable making his home there because NYC and NOLA have a lot in common–diversity, multicultural energy, and festivals for everything. Also the alcohol–lots and lots of alcohol, which the Baptists upstate mostly hate. I could see college students not wanting to leave technicolor Oz to go live in Auntie Em's black-and-white farmhouse.

  • I just read Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, the Last Rock 'n' Roll Band by Bob Mehr, and what you're describing comes up in the book again and again as one of the (many) reasons the second greatest American rock band of the 1980s were barely making ends meet pretty much throughout their entire career—their midwestern "don't start acting too big for your britches" upbringing was one of the things that kept them from achieving what they could have. Such a damn shame.

  • Thank you, Brutus, for illustrating exactly the attitude that's so wearying. The midwest still has pastoral charms, but the entire east and west coast has just "pointless bravado"; all several-thousand miles of it, not a single acre that's pleasant, and of course, it's absolutely sliding into an apocalyptic situation. Of course an area with beautiful vistas and opportunities in any number of fields (bio, biotech, federal and state service, IT, military support, and all the countless businesses that serve them) is absolute garbage compared to the midwest. Yup, you're a Rill Murkkkun.

  • postcaroline says:

    I went to a small liberal arts college with a cooperative education program. We alternated each term between study and work. Many of us spent our work terms around the country; for a lot of people it was an opportunity to see and experience places they'd never been. Some students did international co-ops as well. I don't think you had to arrive on campus a self-motivated and curious individual, but the co-op program would help to instill that over the years. At the same time, the co-op experience was intertwined with the classroom experience, so overall there was a heightened sense of engagement.

    I don't think you need to go to a SLAC to have this kind of engaged experience. But at larger institutions there can be a different mindset about the purpose of an education. When I started my master's program at a giant public university (the top-rated program in my field, FWIW), it quickly became clear that my expectations were different from those of most of my cohort. By and large, my fellow students were not so much interested in engagement as much as just fulfilling the requirements to obtain the degree. It was a means to an end, so the prevailing attitude was they were there to be told what to think (I don't mean in some kind of conspiratorial "sheeple" sense, but more like what Paulo Freire called the banking deposit model of education).

    Anyway I see this as evidence of how decades under neoliberalism have reshaped how we think about the nature and purpose of higher education.

  • And what you described may also be a good explanation for why it's so difficult for child of color to dig herself out the crushing poverty of the inner city. How can she possibly envision a better future for herself when all she sees is despair?

  • Some of it may be fear of ambition too. Call it the Marty McFly effect. But what if I'm ambitious and I fail? Then I have proven that I suck. Sadly, I've found that self-confidence is often anticorrelated with ability. Too many times I've seen competent people fail because they lack the confidence in their abilities, where incompetents succeed because they can project a misplaced confidence.

    But the majority of it is definitely a culturally Midwestern thing (suburban Chicago native here). I feel like the social atmosphere in the schools was all about crushing achievement and ambition. The biggest crime was caring about something or trying hard. Getting ahead was okay, if it meant getting rich or benefitting selfishly, but legitimately caring about something was no good.

  • long ago I knew someone who worked in France doing social work in some very poor region. She told me they did not use future tense verb construction, they were so limited in outlook.
    Lots of good discussion. Nice Ed, you will reach a few students now; and a few more will reflect in a while and go, 'dang he was right'. Keep up the good work.

  • This experience with mid-west humility has always amused me. I went to a small midwestern university with a mix of suburban, farm, and NJ kids. When the freshman dorm touch football team was formed, a NJ kid said he would play quarterback. A suburban kid who pitched varsity baseball and ultimately pitched some MLB innings deferred to the NJ kid.

    It took two games to realize the NJ kid couldn't throw at all and to install the future MLB pitcher at QB, too late to win the dorm championship. The things you learn in college.

  • For my part, I can't help but speculate that a fair number of these cases owe to the US' continually-shrinking social safety net and overall cultural hostility toward anything that smacks of social contract. This helps to foster a relatively high cost of failure that many people may simply not be willing to chance — especially if their own personality inclinations are already "on the bubble" between chance-taking and Meh Good Enough.

    As a concrete example, think of someone stricken with a chronic, manageable, but expensive health condition. I was diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes at age 6 in 1988, i.e. long before even the moderate recent reform of forcing private insurers to carry those with pre-existing conditions. I can't help but wonder whether I'd have been more willing to take even certain relatively-moderate risks, had I not needed to constantly fund high-risk insurance and worry where my next drop of sweet, sweet insulin was coming from. In a country with a functional public health system — and the attendant philosophical underpinnings such a system embodies, that we can work together to cushion large dangers by spreading them out into small costs — would I have attended school further from home? Been willing to give it a try in a larger and costlier city (rather than simply escaping from a Minneapolis suburb to Minneapolis proper)? Started my own legal practice upon graduating into a dried-up market, rather than hanging on to the drudgery of document review and pizza delivery for the sure paychecks?

    Extreme example? Maybe, maybe not. Sure, there aren't a lot of Type I diabetics out there, but what of the millions facing other chronic health conditions or non-medical forms of uncertainty? Hell, what about *everybody*? Anyone can get into a car accident, walk outside and get hit by a bus, come down with food poisoning… If you know that being out of work for a week is enough to screw you completely, with little to no backup option because a small klatch of oligarchs and ideologues have convinced your slightly-better-off neighbors that anything other than Daniel Booneish self-reliance (even in an advanced industrial society) is evidence of moral weakness… well, being highly risk-averse may simply become a way of life.

  • I had ambition enough to move to the Big City, but once I got there my Real American Values thwarted me; I'd been raised to believe saying good stuff about yourself is meaningless, so don't do it. Just do the work, do it well, and other people will start to say good stuff about you. That's how you succeed.

    It has not proven true. For me. Meanwhile I've seen lots of unlikable jerks who make a hash of everything get handed some big opportunities. In the end, they didn't succeed either, usually, because they make a hash. But man, in 20 years I have never really solved the riddle of "How do I tell the right person I'm the right person?" Good for you, trying to teach that.

  • anotherbozo says:

    Ed's reflection that it's untoward to brag on yourself in the Midwest resonated with me. Though I'm from a part of rural California, the mystique was the same: trying to tell anyone that you were good at something was a breach in etiquette of the most serious order; if you weren't average or below average, it wasn't up to you to point it out. This was not good preparation when I went to New York to make my mark. then years later I discovered a statement of Gore Vidal's on the reality of this country:

    “In America, the race goes to the loud, the solemn, the hustler. If you think you're …great… you must say that you are.”

    He said "great writer" but it's true of any vocation other than saint, I'm sure. Being modest may work in a one-horse town where everyone knows you, but nowhere else. And being raised in one, you can tend to underplay your hand the rest of your life. In New York, if you express doubts about your excellence, everyone takes it at face value.

  • From a sociological/anthropological perspective, the big issue wherever you're from is how big a penalty you believe that you will pay if you separate yourself from your family, and whether being professionally ambitious will separate you from your family.

    Communities take work to participate in, and if there is a significant benefit to belonging to a particular community, and not much benefit to separating yourself from it, then it's foolish to encourage the person to separate themselves from it. Being a successful lawyer in a small town can be a big success if the people in that town are people whose opinion you value highly. You may make less money, but you might get a lot more respect than you would in an urban law firm where no one knows who you are besides your co-workers and your clients.

    A lot of people who are very comfortable moving all around the world seeking the best jobs are people whose family and friends are all in similar situations. They know that they will see each other on particular types of occasions, so they don't consider it strange that they would be in a community made up largely of strangers. That takes a very strong cultural identity to pull off, which is where humanities courses and subscriptions to the New Yorker come into play.

  • @gromet- I'm in the exact same boat. One of the people from my small Midwestern home to make it to the big city (Chicago then San Francisco), but after almost 20 years of this life I've reached the burnout home. A small, affordable home in Madison or whatever sounds pretty damn good to me at this point.

  • @gromet- I'm in the exact same boat. One of the few people from my small Midwestern home to make it to the big city (Chicago then San Francisco), but after almost 20 years of this life I'm very burned out on city living, and more importantly, the type of people that surge to the city to "make it." A small, affordable home in Madison or whatever sounds pretty damn good to me at this point.

  • chautauqua says:

    Eastern city kid, ended up going to a Minnesota SLAC, then left for the brighter lights only to return to the MW and now live 8 blocks from my alma Mater and happily work for a prestigious outfit down the road. I don't know what to make of it either except that working around ambitious people is not all its cracked up to be.

  • I didn't move too far away from my parents to be sure. They are only about a 4 hour drive away. And while they and I know I probably could have done a little better in college and gotten a phd in psychology. I don't at all regret going off to college locally. The in-state tuition was nice and I generally had a really good time going through college, experiencing new things, and making friends and shit I learned a lot! I'm also happy to live in Bloomington. It's like a magical little spot of liberalism across the rest of my state's drab conservatism/republican canvas. :)

  • This could be a class thing. Working class people in the US and elsewhere are taught not to be too ambitious, not to toot their own horns and to defer to the boss. I read an interesting book on the working class / business class line, Limbo, by a working class kid who went to college and moved into a white collar world. He grew up in Brooklyn, but in a completely different culture. He had to learn a whole new language. Go to Amazon and read the reviews of the book for some interesting insights.

    Immigrants, in contrast, are classless in a sense. They're self selected. They had enough ambition to leave their home country, so they've already made that break. They might be stuck in a lousy working class job, but they know that they can do better, and if they can't do better, their children can do better. The mid-west doesn't have the same level of immigration as the coasts, so that might make a difference as well.

  • @Kaleberg; you may have a point. Additionally, children of non-immigrants grow up with the children of immigrants and see how hard those children work.

    One of the previous links was to a story about a chicken proceesing facility that wanted to move outside a town of 400 in (Nebraska?) but the locals insist they are Christian and therefore will not be subjected to the possibility of coming in contact with immigrants, some of whom might not be Christian and might even be (whisper) MUSLIM, because of course people willing to work extremely long hours at very dangerous jobs for very little pay is a threat to Rill Murkkkuh.

  • schmitt trigger says:

    Thanks MO for the link to the first 50.

    I second the motion….F$%^ wordpress for a stupid "feature"

  • Interrobang says:

    I'm not American, but this resonates with me, too. Then again, I never had the kind of ambition that drives people into Wall/Bay St. jobs or white-shoe law firms, and I still don't.

    I did my undergraduate degree at the university in the city nearest where I grew up because my parents would pay for it and not having that kind of student debt (even in Canada in the 1990s, not a trivial dollar figure) was a good tradeoff; did my graduate degree an hour down the road (granted, at one of the two schools in Canada that then offered the programme I took), and wound up working in Toronto for a year. Fast-forward through a tumultuous period coinciding with a recession, and I was de facto homeless and moved back in with my parents for a while. Got a job here, and 15 years and several jobs later, I'm still here.

    Meh, it ain't so bad. I have gotten to travel quite a bit, the cost of living's good, and this town is super-pretty. (Great place to live, shitty place to visit.) The job market could be better, but it could be better anywhere, n'est-ce pas?

    I just wish the Really Big Tech Company I used to work for hadn't laid me off. It's been tough since.

  • Another important difference between students at a Midwestern state school and those fancy East Coast universities would be money. And since the Unfortunate Events of 2008/2009 a lot of people seem to have a lot less of it.

  • LuigidaMan says:

    I used to work at a large multi-office headhunting firm as a Communications Director. One of my jobs was to interview the top ten percent, the over-achievers who made a million or so a year. Often, these were former sales people, paralegals, middle management people who, on day, all of a sudden made a lot of money all at once. To a person, they lost their friends and family because of their new found incredible wealth. Not necessarily their immediate family, but parents, siblings, cousins, etc. When you are successful everyone, as Arlo Guthrie once put it "Moves away from you on the Group W bench." Most people, especially if they are in small town America, can't take this kind of pressure. They like their old friends, they want their old life. I, too, am a professor in the Midwest. While I have my share of those who have spread their winds and flown, most cannot conceive of moving away from all they know and are comfortable with.

  • There's an assumption here that professional ambition is all that good. In an American economy which seems to be focused on rewarding spreadsheet diddling, military spending, the vile entertainment industry, etc….I am less sure.

    "I escaped Peoria to become a hedge fund manager and venture capitalist who funded the latest ap to make it easier for spoiled yuppies to pay for piecework slaves to do all my chores for me." A world class Master of the Universe I be!

    * I know that this is no way true and I am justifying my own sloth and failures.

  • My, oh my, do you have it pegged!
    I live in the rural Midwest and yes, yes, yes. The people are insulated and isolated and can't imagine anything else. The few that do escape to somewhere else after college generally do not come back. Can't keep 'em down on the farm once they've seen Paree!

    One of my children went to college, graduated, and now lives on the east coast. When we visit there and return home, I am always struck by the huge divide I encounter. The people around me everyday don't have a clue about the bigger, broader world and don't want to know. It is getting worse. It's too scary. They are terrified of terrorists but don't have a care in the world about the kid down the road who "has a little drinking problem" and a basement full of guns. It's ok; they know his family. Outsiders are terrifying, especially if they are well educated. Pretty good is good enough. Too much education just makes you question things, and who knows where that might lead? Other races and religions are a thing never encountered. So when the likes of Trump talks about rounding up Muslims, it doesn't register, really. They don't know any.

    My east coast child has mentioned to me several times that she cannot grasp all the opportunities she missed by growing up where she did. Both my children have moved away and I would encourage them not to return.

    Excellent post. Just excellent.

  • ChrisBear says:

    Hey kids! Been a bit.

    I CHOOSE to live in Minneapolis. Growing up around DC showed me way too much of the downsides of that vaunted 'Ambition':
    Nobody I grew up with has parents that are still married to each other.

    Traffic sucks. When everyone is Special, nobody can slow down or let anyone pass them.

    Expenses. I raise my family in a ice area, in a nice house for what I could rent a garage for in Boston or SF. I think I could rent a trashcan for this much in DC.

    Real conversations. When I do go visit, people talk about work and drop names. I really do not care who sat next to you at dinner last week. How are YOU doing?

    Besides, I am not sure spending your life clawing you way 'Up' is the best approach. Some improvement, sure. But one should seek happiness in the here-and-now, not The Next Thing.

  • The pace of living in one of those desirable coastal cities can be exhausting. The cost of living is insanely high and there is a new batch of the best and brightest from around the world looking to eat your lunch as soon as you slip just a little bit.

    While there is absolutely nothing in this world that would make me return to my insular shithole of a hometown, I can picture myself cashing on on the unsustainable real estate bubble and locating to a much less hip area where a regular job can actually provide a living and without the constant need to fuck over my fellow man just to remain employed is still a possibility.

  • YoursInTheSnow says:

    I grew up in Iowa – a great place to be from. I spent 23 years overseas – Asia – Europe – Africa and then back to Europe. I never made a ton of money but enough to be comfortable. I moved back so my kids could attend US High Schools and have that cultural experience. Now they are in college and itching to get to Europe. They look down their noses at kids that grew up on the coasts – just like those kids looked down their noses at me! They both will give up their citizenship if DT get elected president. I don't think Iowa will ever be as good as it was back in the '60s – the religious nuts seem to have taken over. I often wonder what the hell has happened to this country.

  • Heisenberg says:

    @Katydid – Your descriptions of where you live are outing you as a San Diegan. If so, cheers! See you on the beach.

  • This resonates with me. I'm from a small town in Michigan. I do not want to live there again, ever. I was one of the brightest students in my high school, but instead of even looking at some of the more prestigious universities, I applied to a regional state school. Don't get me wrong, I did well there, but I missed opportunities because of it and I know it.

    I eventually moved to the big city, Minneapolis. A different state even (blame the recession and my love life, but that's a different story). I do like that city, and it actually exposed me to more ambitious people and a different world. That was where I was really given the push to apply to graduate school. Now I'm on the east coast pursing a PhD (which may or may not be a mistake, but I don't even care at this point).

  • Boy did this one hit home!!!

    I was born and lived in a very small and wealthy town in NJ, then went to college in Wisconsin. I still remember a classmate from Chicago getting on me for being from the east and that easterners looked down on those from Chicago. And this was as a first semester freshman. It got to the point where I challenged him, "WTF…?" Asked a friend from Boston, "Do they have an inferiority complex? Seriously. Do they?" We were starting to believe it.

    Roommate was from Indiana. After graduation did a world of travel but could not wait to return to Indiana for visit. Once a month or so, take a long weekend back to Indiana. He finally moved back there for good.

    Another would not leave the family plot in Minnesota.

    Right now I'm reading a great book on the Chicago World's Fair of 1892. Chicago had, a couple years before, moved up population-wise and was now declared the "Second City", displacing Philadelphia (according to Philadelphia, by taking over surrounding towns and incorporating them into the city limits.)

    Why did Chicago want the Fair? One OVERWHELMING reason: To show up NYC.

    (The book is "The Devil in the White City", by Erik Larson, an historian who writes like a novelist. Book concentrates on two real people, the architect who was put in charge getting and then building the Fair; and a cunning serial killer in its midst.)

  • Andrew Laurence says:

    I wish someone had advised me to set my sights lower. I only ever wanted to be Chief Justice of the United States or Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. :-)

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