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You Gotta Have a Narrative

As long as our system rewards an interesting personal narrative over character, achievement or intelligence, we will have a problem with people embellishing their resumes to gain an advantage.

Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren are only the most recent examples.

The yellowed Hawaiian newspaper clipping is good enough for me. Obama is a natural-born American citizen. But to Occidental, Columbia and Harvard, the story of a Kenyan birth made a more interesting story than the story of an upper-middle class kid who was raised in Hawaii by his grandparents.

It’s a disease that is especially noticeable in higher education. When my daughter applied to a selective midwestern liberal arts college, we received a copy of a recruiting pamphlet the school published: “Meet the Class of 200X”. It detailed a dozen or so profiles of entering freshmen from the preceding class. It became a running joke in our family.

One kid spent a summer in high school nursing baby wildebeests back to health in the Serengeti.

Another helped his family build a log cabin in Honduras using hand tools only.

Another swam the Amazon while researching indigenous tribal music.

At the elite institutions, it’s no longer enough to have high board scores, an impressive high school GPA and a leadership position on the Student Council.

Ya gotta have game. Ya gotta have a narrative. The system knows this, abets it and helps in its manufacture. Nobody audits, nobody checks, because in the end, nobody cares. The school just passes along what it’s been told.

The only people it hurts are the ones that are stupid enough to stick with the literal truth.

We saw it on a small scale with our daughter. While being lauded for her achievements at her graduation from her small high school, the headmaster told of the hours that Junior had spent volunteering at a retirement home. I wish she had, but it wasn’t really true.

I’m sure there are a lot of kids out there with wonderful stories to tell of overcoming hardship and adversity, or taking on an unusual challenge. But as long as the system rewards stories of an exotic origin, or 1/32 ancestry in an oppressed minority, there will be embellishment.

As I learned in my youth, “The first liar doesn’t have a chance.”

Cross-posted at SteveMaley.com.

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