The American Experience

The presidential campaign invites many commentators to ask about each candidate’s vision or narrative. An unlikely source—a mysterious Mr. Y— provided a narrative before the last election that still holds together well for me.

“This narrative advocates for America to pursue her enduring interests of prosperity and security through a strategy of sustainability that is built upon the solid foundation of our national values. As Americans we needn’t seek the world’s friendship or to proselytize the virtues of our society. Neither do we seek to bully, intimidate, cajole, or persuade others to accept our unique values or to share our national objectives. Rather, we will let others draw their own conclusions based upon our actions. Our domestic and foreign policies will reflect unity of effort, coherency and constancy of purpose. We will pursue our national interests and allow others to pursue theirs, never betraying our values. We will seek converging interests and welcome interdependence. We will encourage fair competition and will not shy away from deterring bad behavior. We will accept our place in a complex and dynamic strategic ecosystem and use credible influence and strength to shape uncertainty into opportunities. We will be a pathway of promise and a beacon of hope, in an ever changing world.”

“Mr. Y” is actually two senior military officers attached to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


Advice to a young person beginning to learn

A letter to my children as they began their college experience…

As you complete your major, you will have a set of tools in a single discipline. Yet, your success will depend upon being able to move easily across disciplines.

Understanding different cultures

The world economy is becoming a true global economy. In this emerging world, which will be the one you inhabit throughout the 21st century, geopolitical boundaries will be less relevant. You will stand out if you understand what it takes to communicate effectively across cultures, respecting differences while benefiting from what can be accomplished together. It would be useful to understand the underpinning of different religions (comparative religions) and cultures (civilization, sociology). The impending struggle between Islam and western civilization will be dominant for the next several decades and it is important to be able to craft your own course through it.

Understanding human nature

You can increase your understanding from human nature by thinking carefully and hard about your own experiences with people, but this approach takes a lifetime. Or you can learn from drama, poetry, literature and film. These art forms are often the highest form of narrative and the best relate to the human condition and the way events change human character. There is a canon of literature that you should sample and spend enough time to appreciate, even if it is thinking hard about only a few pieces. You will learn from it, it will sensitize you to how what you do may affect others, and it will occasionally astound you with how some people can characterize feelings with an economy of words.

Learning to communicate

There are two skills that may turn out to be the most important you will ever learn if you want to achieve your own potential and to influence others: storytelling and writing. Study storytelling, narrative or writing (creative nonfiction, journalism or creative writing). Most people do not know how to communicate in a way that truly highlights what is important, eliminates what is marginal, depends upon a few key words that are highly descriptive, and does it all with directness and simplicity. If you can learn to tell a story (which is what every memo you ever write should be), write clearly, and do it in a simple and straightforward way, you will have an influence well beyond that of others with even greater intellect. This skill should include the ability to present information clearly. You will succeed in whatever you choose to do by understanding first what you want to say and then being able to communicate it effectively. The ideas do not need to be complex nor the expression poetic; the ideas have to be well conceived, simplified, and communicated clearly and in an unforgettable manner.

A few courses that would be very useful in achieving these purposes

  • Greek mythology and drama. Simple ways to tell stories, myths that still influence western civilization
  • Modern European history (or political history), The global economy will depend upon effective competition with the European Union and attitudes in Europe are heavily influenced by what Europeans have experienced over the past 300 years.
  • Modern Asian history (or political history). The largest new markets and the most dynamic competition you will experience will come from the Pacific Rim countries. You will need to understand them to benefit.
  • Survey of art history. Civilization is still reflected in its highest and best form through visual expression. In the real world, without an appreciation of art, you will not be able to carry on conversations in the most refined circles, which is where you want to be eventually.
  • Political philosophy. A survey course in political philosophy will reveal different ways society has thought about organizing itself. It will offer a deeper understanding of alternative political systems and political attitudes (e.g., I could not understand the appeal of certain aspects of conservative thought without having had to think about it in the context of political philosophy). This will also introduce principles that are useful in your own life and in business organizations. This should include gaining an understanding of the importance of social justice, free speech, respect for human equality and religious pluralism. Without this understanding, you will find yourself reacting on personal terms to what occurs in the political economy, rather than being able to express your own philosophy.
  • Environmental issues. A survey course on environmental issues will help to understand what may be the most compelling external constraint on business and the economy over the next century. You must learn to understand this as an opportunity and a challenge, not an obstacle. Become sensitive to its importance and determine to respect the constraint, rather than fight it, if you want to stand out and succeed.
  • Information design. This is the technique in presenting information effectively to tell y0ur story. A course in this should demonstrate the principles advanced by Edward Tufte and help you to discover ways to present data. Probably taught as a visual communication course, perhaps in Newhouse. Your narratives and arguments will be enhanced by the proper use of data, particularly in a world in which there is access to too much information, yet far too little highlighting of what is really important.
  • A survey of 20th century American literature (the novel) might be the most comfortable course to build up experience in the canon of literature. A survey course in English literature, even if it is contemporary literature, would also be useful. Literature helps you to understand how character is formed by experience (much faster than experiencing it yourself); it also helps your storytelling skills, and it introduces you to the power of expression. It is also a point of reference in conversation that becomes very important when you talking with others with whom there is no real shared experience.
  • Writing, writing, writing. Learn to write clearly, simply, directly. Study grammar and punctuation until you are bored by always being right. Bad grammar and punctuation will get in the way of people paying full attention to your arguments.
  • A creative course. This can be anything that lets you create—drawing, design, ceramics, jewelry, woodworking. It is an important means of confirming your own skills and expressiveness. Most of the other courses you take involve absorbing and processing information created by others. Your creative endeavor is intellectual as you find ways to interpret others’ work. A creative class allows you to express a different part of your character that is totally original. Just as with sports, it helps you to discover ways to do something that is not intellectual. This becomes further affirmation for you as an individual and helps to build self-confidence.