Excellent Sheep and Most Likely to Succeed thoroughly indict the American education system. In the late 80s and early 90s when I was in high school, the treadmill wasn’t as stressful and pervasive as now, but straight A students like myself were encouraged and expected to get on it. We were expected to join the student council and National Honor Society, give a shit about Who’s Who Among Students and National Merit Scholarships, and do extracurriculars we didn’t really care about. Who’s Who and National Merit came along with the tests I had to take, but I skipped the rest of the script. I saw it as styrofoam and a waste of time. What did this have to do with who I wanted to be?
Instead, I was dialing in to Bulletin Board Systems using a hand-me-down 286 and a 2400 baud modem. I was particularly captivated by boards run by engineers. The Digital X-Connect was run by telecom engineers in the telecom corridor north of Dallas. Bulletin boards showed me what I wanted to do and be. I wanted to be an engineer who helped build the infrastructure that would allow me to talk to the world with the written rather than the spoken word. I was working on cross-connects a couple of years later.
My neurodivergence saved me from the treadmill. The society I lived in didn’t have the vocabulary for me. “He’s just shy. He’s just quiet.” Autistic is the word. I credit my autistic operating system for rejecting pressure from peers and the system to get on the treadmill and give myself to a false culture. Introversion and an analytical skepticism of society drove me to the written word and alternative life scripts. Instead of eating stress and curating a fake self in hopes of entering a prestigious school and maintaining my credentials, I went to an affordable state university that gave me a scholarship. It happened to be right next to the telecom corridor. I entered the university’s co-op program and secured a position at a company making switches and cross-connects. I worked there full-time while taking a full-time course load and doing sys and network admin work for the school. The web and commercial internet were dawning, and I wanted to approach them from every available angle. I wanted to speak with computers and text.
I continued my straight A trend for a while, but the load was too great. Something had to give. Academic treadmill thinking would have me drop the co-op and sysadmin work and put more of myself into my course load. That was certainly what administrators wanted me to do. But, school was almost all theory. Physics and math courses were much of the curriculum, and they were unenjoyable cut courses meant to weed out students. I wanted more. I wanted theory and practice. I wanted to make things.
I invested myself in courses like Automata Theory – regular expressions are used by all developers all the time – but other classes I barely attended. I showed up on test days, did well enough to pass, and cared not at all about my GPA so long as I got the BS in CS that companies still required back then. Though I was already working full-time as an entry-level engineer, I had to get that piece of paper to make the position real and permanent.
Helping make telephony, the internet, and the nascent web was a helluva lot more interesting than most of my courses. Bringing open source and the web into stodgy corporations (through and around FUDdled suits and lawyers) felt great. While skipping much of a forgettable course load, I learned how to work on a team and ship. I got the diploma, and never in my career has it mattered that I didn’t stay on the treadmill to a prestigious cum laude. Only that first engineering job ever asked to see my diploma, and then only so that a box on a form could be checked.
That piece of paper is no longer needed. In the last ten years I’ve seen and helped really smart people get off the treadmill, avoid debt, and ship cool things.
For a taste of Excellent Sheep, here are a handful of quotes from the opening chapters.
The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.
Look beneath the façade of affable confidence and seamless well-adjustment that today’s elite students have learned to project, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. We all know about the stressed-out, overpressured high school student; why do we assume that things get better once she gets to college?
Convening a task force on student mental health in 2006, Stanford’s provost wrote that “increasingly, we are seeing students struggling with mental health concerns ranging from self-esteem issues and developmental disorders to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-mutilation behaviors, schizophrenia and suicidal behavior.” As a college president wrote me, “we appear to have an epidemic of depression among younger people.”
But the compulsive overachievement of today’s elite college students— the sense that they need to keep running as fast as they can— is not the only thing that keeps them from forming the deeper relationships that might relieve their anguish. Something more insidious is operating, too: a resistance to vulnerability, a fear of looking like the only one who isn’t capable of handling the pressure. These are young people who have always succeeded at everything, in part by projecting the confidence that they always will. Now, as they get to college, the stakes are higher and the competition fiercer. Everybody thinks that they’re the only one who’s suffering, so nobody says anything, so everybody suffers. Everyone feels like a fraud; everyone thinks that everybody else is smarter than they are.
And make no mistake; today’s elite students are, in purely academic terms, phenomenally well prepared. How could they not be, given how carefully they’re bred, how strenuously sorted and groomed? They are the academic equivalent of all-American athletes, coached and drilled and dieted from the earliest years of life. Whatever you demand of them, they’ll do. Whatever bar you place in front of them, they’ll clear.
You need to get a job, but you also need to get a life. What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.
Never to have failed is a sign not of merit but fragility; it means your fears have kept you from doing or becoming what you might have.