Monday, October 09, 2006

Happy Fog

I read somewhere that clinically-depressed people actually have more accurate views of most situations than do 'healthy' people, since they're immune to the 'happy fog' that most people apply to themselves. Most people, if asked, consider themselves above-average drivers, which is statistically impossible.* I have a game I play with photographs, wherein I consider any photo of me taken since about 1999 to be a bad picture. Signs of aging are, in fact, simply the symptoms of bad photography. And mirrors. And lighting. Intellectually, I know it's crap, but the rationalizations kick in every time I see a new picture.

What the happy fog costs people in accuracy, it usually more than makes up in confidence. If I had any kind of accurate conception of what I really look like, I probably wouldn't leave the house. My illusions make it possible for me to function. The outfielder and philosopher Lenny Dykstra was once quoted saying something to the effect that he believed that he could hit any pitcher at any time, and the minute he stopped believing that he'd lose his effectiveness as a player. There's something to that. Most small businesses fail in the first few years, yet people keep starting them anyway. It's a good thing they do, because the economy would be in terrible shape without them. But it takes a generous helping of happy fog for that many people to think they can beat odds that daunting. Happy fog may get individuals in over their heads, but it probably helps the economy as a whole.

(Is there a more textbook case of happy fog than the hordes of eager young grad students rushing into doctoral programs, each convinced that s/he will buck the adjunct trend? If not for their exploitable hopes and dreams, colleges would have to hire more full-time faculty, and would be even more expensive than they already are!)

Happy fog, like most intoxicants, shouldn't be used to excess. It can lead to grandiose and delusional behavior, and to a real antipathy to truth-tellers. (“You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie.”) Truth-tellers are the buzzkill that happy-fog addicts fear and loathe. That they're right only makes them more hateful.

I'm confronting a happy-fog vs. truth-teller issue, and I'm starting to get worried. Without getting too detailed or revealing, I'll just say that it involves the limits of what internal reform can accomplish in the face of negative external demographic changes. The happy foggers say that there is no limit to what internal reform can accomplish, as long as everyone stays focused. More darkly, they intimate, people who mention limits are saboteurs or malingerers, dooming the college with their self-fulfilling negativity. (To be fair, curmudgeons frequently like to style themselves truth-tellers, when in fact they're just bitter and nasty. So the intimations don't come out of nowhere.) The smarter truth-tellers actually support internal reform, but suggest that expecting too much to come of it can only end in tears.

We're at the point at which a significant number of painful internal reforms have already taken place, but their impact has been disappointingly small as against external changes. This is where the conflict gets tricky. Both groups agree that the payoff has been frustratingly small, but they offer different explanations. To the truth-tellers, the payoff was probably the best that could be expected in a hostile external climate. The next job is to face up to the reality of that climate, and start making some really unpleasant decisions. To the happy-foggers, the payoff was small because too many people don't like change, too many nay-sayers are running around, and too many people just refuse to get with the program. There's nothing wrong with the program; it just needs to be amped up.

One of the constant frustrations of adulthood is realizing that the good guys don't always win. In fact, many people don't even know who the good guys are.

In a recent conversation, I commented that I'm much more candid on my blog than I am in my office. In my office, there's only so much candor I'm allowed. Part of the job involves projecting confidence even when you have doubts yourself, since success is likelier when it's expected. I pick my battles, and not that many of them. I don't want to be the buzzkill who gets thrown out of the party. But I don't want the college to spend time and energy chasing shadows, either.

Socrates thought he was a truth-teller, piercing the happy fog of the citizens of Athens, and we know what happened to him.

Nobody said it would be easy...