William Deresiewicz (who will be speaking at our upcoming conference on Friday afternoon, 4/28!) made waves in 2008 when the American Scholar published his essay, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” His full length book from 2011, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life, expounded upon the earlier essay and was a bestseller. The book’s premise is that kids arrive at Ivy league schools and other elite colleges proven experts at jumping through hoops. But beyond their noteworthy ability to ace tests, students are woefully unprepared for the real world. Deresiewicz found, while teaching a small seminar at Yale on the literature of friendship, that his students were profoundly unhappy. To put it crudely, most of them didn’t have any friends. So, he started to investigate why these wildly successful and high achieving kids were so often depressed, anxious and unable to articulate their hopes and dreams.

Thanks to extensive research and correspondence with other people in his milieu, Deresiewicz’s initial hunches were confirmed. He sprinkles in the confessions of discontented students and professors to powerful effect. Altogether, Excellent Sheep combines the scholarly research of an advanced sociological study with the author’s literary feel for people and narrative. Here’s an excerpt from the book in which Deresiewicz draws from his personal history to elucidate the ubiquitous dichotomy us young people subject ourselves to: grandiosity vs. depression. He mentions several books that are discussed elsewhere at more length, but the sense of the passage still comes across. Listen for the law of comparison and Deresiewicz’s remarkable candor.

I should say that this is very personal for me. Everything I’m talking about is very personal, because I used to be one of these kids, but this above all. For years I rode the roller coaster of grandiosity and depression, struggled to separate myself from the need for my father’s approval. (He was both an immigrant and an Ivy League professor, a double whammy.) Even getting a job at Yale turned out to be, like every achievement, no more than a temporary salve. Within a few months, he was asking me when I was going to get my dissertation published. But he wasn’t the real problem anymore, and his death, a decade later, made very little difference. The real problem was, as one of my students has put it, “the Frankenstein’s monster of ambition,” the insatiable need to be “the best.”

Time and again, I’d thought I’d finally gotten over it, and time and again I would relapse. It was only when I read The Drama of the Gifted Child in the course of researching this book – I was already forty-eight, with half of my adulthood gone – that I was finally able to find relief. Actually, it was only when I read The Drama of the Gifted Child directly after Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. (Thank you, Amy Chua.) Tiger Mother felt like reliving a childhood trauma; The Drama of the Gifted Child felt like going through the therapy to cure it. Both show from opposite directions but in terms that are equally stark, what it was that I’d grown up with. Something broke in me, or rather, something broke loose. I suddenly felt – not only saw, as I had for many years, but felt – that I was missing my life. I was missing my chance to be happy, missing my chance to be free.

I was also missing something else: the joy that comes when you stop feeling threatened by other people’s accomplishments and let yourself be open to the beauty that they bring into the world. For that is one of the greatest curses of the high-achieving mentality: the envy that it forces on you – the desperation, not simply to be loved, but to be loved, as Auden says, alone. Milton, in Paradise Lost, has Satan put it like this – Satan, who is not a beastlike creature in the poem, but the brightest of angels, the first in his class, fallen, precisely from excess ambition. He has arrived in Eden to destroy the happiness of Adam and Eve, and looking around himself, he thinks: “the more I see / Pleasures about me, so much more I feel / Torment within me, as from the hateful siege / Of contraries; all good to me becomes / Bane, and in Heav’n much worse would be my state.”

That’s how envy works: the better things are, the worse they are, because they don’t belong to you. Or as Satan puts it more succinctly elsewhere in the poem, “myself am Hell.” But now I’d finally had enough. I wasn’t going to be guilty anymore. I wasn’t going to punish myself by looking for reasons to be miserable. I wasn’t going to feel bad about feeling good. I had spent enough time in Hell. But it had taken more than thirty years to reach that point.