Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz

Rating: 8/10

Read More on AmazonSubscribe to get future book notes & reviews

High-Level Thoughts

Very important! College students are stuck on traditional, “safe” paths and end up with jobs they don’t like so they can buy shit they don’t need to impress people they don’t like. This book is perfect for the college student who is stuck on that path, or the parent who put them there. The only criticism I have is that his solution doesn’t go big enough in its ambition.

Summary Notes

  • Things like being a musician or writer don’t have an application form, don’t have a clear path
  • “It isn’t any wonder, as graduation draws near, that a lot of students scurry frantically around, looking for another hoop to jump through.”
  • “The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They have been haunted their whole lives by a fear of failure— often, in the first instance, by their parents’ fear of failure. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.”
  • “What is not reasonable is that we have constructed an educational system that produces highly intelligent, accomplished twenty-two-year-olds who have no idea what they want to do with their lives: no sense of purpose and, what is worse, no understanding of how to go about finding one. Who can follow an existing path but don’t have the imagination— or the courage, or the inner freedom— to invent their own.”
  • “No wonder they have also lost their souls: athletics means no more now than physical training; music means technical proficiency; service means charity; leadership means climbing to the top.”
  • ““We think it odd that a man should devote his life to writing poems,” the critic Dwight Macdonald said some years ago, “but natural that he should devote it to inducing children to breakfast on Crunchies instead of Krispies.” I’ve had to talk a gifted young musician into acknowledging that music can make a difference in people’s lives.”
  • “Beyond a moderate level of material comfort, happiness consists of two things: feeling connected to others and engaging in meaningful work. These are hardly new ideas. Aristotle, who said that man is a social animal, also said that happiness derives from exercising one’s particular capacities. Doing strenuously, in other words, what you do well. Summoning that sense of joy and freedom that arises from your belly when you’re doing work that calls upon your favorite powers.”
  • “In The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, a nurse who works in end-of-life care reports that the single most common regret her patients express is that “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
  • “But Brooks is still at least half right. “Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life,” he says. “They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”
  • “Emerson quotes Oliver Cromwell: “A man never rises so high as when he knows not whither he is going.” The desire to eliminate uncertainty eliminates life.”
  • “But if you aren’t financially constrained, if you didn’t graduate with debt, then what is your excuse? The psychic dodge that seems to be at work is similar to what we saw with “self-indulgence.” Using your privilege to pursue your dreams is spiritually suspect, but using it to enrich yourself still further is somehow authentic.”
  • “But there is something that’s a great deal more important than parental approval: learning to do without it. That’s what it means to become an adult. A child who never rebels remains a child forever. Generational conflict was not invented in the 1960s. It is a normal part of growing up, an integral feature of human society.”
  • “What do you owe your parents? Love, and when they need it later, care, but not submission. Not your life. What do you owe your parents? Nothing. The family is not a business deal. You don’t “owe” your parents; you have a relationship with them. When you are still a child, that relationship ought to involve obedience. Once you’re an adult, it has to involve independence.”
  • “Don’t try to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. You’re going to be a very different person in two or three years, and that person will have his own ideas. All you can really figure out is what you want to do right now.”
  • “When people say ‘leaders’ now, what they mean is gung ho ‘followers.’ ”
  • “Emerson insisted that we each must win our independence by mounting a private revolution to free ourselves from the tyranny of existing mental structures. Independence, revolution, tyranny, freedom: concepts that are essential to America’s collective history, as well. Emerson took the national act as exemplary for the individual life. America’s revolution was also an intellectual one. It also overthrew existing modes of thought, existing ideas about the way the world can look.”
  • “Instead of worrying so much about building your resume, you need to start working on building your mind.”
  • ““The most important kind of learning is about how to learn.”
  • “Information is freely available everywhere now; the question is whether you know what to do with it.”
  • “Thinking is a skill— or rather, a large and complex set of skills. In terms of what they take to learn, they aren’t any different than manual ones— than hitting a ball or throwing a pot. You do not learn them from a book or video or website. You learn them directly from another person. You learn them through incessant repetition and incremental variation and extension under the close supervision of an experienced practitioner. You learn them in classes that are small enough to allow for individual attention, supplemented by one-on-one instruction tailored to your own specific aptitudes and needs. If you’re learning how to play guitar, the teacher will place your hands exactly where they need to go (and do it again and again until you get it right). The mind has “hands,” as well, and an endless variety of things you can do with them.” –

Enjoyed this? Be sure to subscribe!