21 November 2011

Willy Loman rides again

The fall term got off to a huge start, and I've been remiss in posting for a while. Here's a quickie before heading off to bed.

A few weeks ago, a friend turned me on to this column about how baby boomers have failed us (I'm a child of boomers) as a generation. Not my parents, of course (I noticed how the author also excused his parents), but their generation in general took an amazing world gifted them by the greatest generation and turned it into a myopic, selfish, litigious world full of terrible leadership and terrible advice. I had a great conversation about the column with my father-in-law a week and a half ago, and the other day, he referred me to this column, which forms a sort of rebuttal by taking my generation to task for their superficiality.

I've been thinking about both columns, and about Willy Loman. The 'hero' of Death of a Salesman grew up in a time when a man could provide for his family, when a handshake meant you had a deal, and when a good personality was all you needed for professional success. He advises his sons that the most important thing to be in life is to be well-liked. By the end of the play, Willy Loman, having seen his whole world shatter, is driven to suicide.

We're supposed to view Loman as sad and out of touch. The world has changed and left him behind. It's no longer useful to be well-liked: you now need to be smart too! Poor Willy - he's doomed to obsolescence.

Except that what Willy believed is what we're taught. We're taught that a smile and an emoticon is enough to get you out of trouble. We're taught that it's okay if you're not smart as long as you can tell a joke. We're taught that those who are intelligent but not well-liked end life at the bottom of the pile. We're taught that masking your true feelings behind a veneer of pleasantness is the way to the top.

The truth lies in between, as most truths do. It's not enough to be well-liked, but it is important. It's not enough to be intelligent, but it is important. It's not enough to be honest, but it is enough.

Well-liked, Intelligent, and Honest. Willy Loman had two (mostly), and he killed himself. Bernard was all three. Biff, two, and he hurt for it. Happy, two, and he was blissfully ignorant.

You need all three for success.

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