Politics & Policy

Learning Values in a Tough Time

WTF?!: A sociologist’s untraditional traditional approach.

Yes, the title has “WTF”in it. But it’s not quite what you think. “Wise, Tenacious, and Fearless” is Christine B. Whelan’s focus, lesson, and goal in her new book Generation WTF: From What the #$%&! to a Wise, Tenacious, and Fearless You: Advice on How to Get There from Experts and WTFers Just Like You, published by Templeton Press. Whelan, a visiting assistant professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Pittsburgh, talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the joys of self-discipline, thrift, and an honest day’s work, the dangers of co-habitation, and other advice, philosophy — and marketing — behind WTF.


Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why would you ever title a book with “WTF”? Why would Templeton let you?

Christine Whelan: For two decades, Americans believed the only direction was up: Housing prices rose, the stock market climbed ever higher, and individual spending soared. Popular wisdom lauded those who took risks, not those who saved their pennies: Materialism beat out thrift, instant gratification was cooler than self-control, and the runaway self-help bestseller of 2006, The Secret, told us that all we had to do was think about success hard enough and it would magically find its way to us.

Into this optimistic bull market a generation of children were born and raised and came of age. They were given many names — the Millennials, the DotNet kids, the Trophy Generation, or Generation Me — and were raised to expect a future of limitless possibilities. As children of the youngest Baby Boomers, this group of more than 40 million young Americans born between 1979 and 1993 were reared on self-esteem, materialism, and technology. The result? An optimistic, entitled, impatient, multitasking group. In study after study, Millennials reported that their major life goals were to be rich and famous — and that they believed it was likely this would happen.

Their parents, on the whole, tended to encourage these attitudes. Born in the 1950s and ’60s, these young Boomers maxed out their credit cards to pay for the latest gadgets, eagerly accepted no-money-down loans for homes and cars they couldn’t afford, and, especially among the better educated and more affluent of this cohort, invested nearly limitless energy in molding their children into the perfect applicants for top universities, whatever the cost.

Then, in the fall of 2008, the zeitgeist changed: The stock market plummeted, jobless rates rose — and the era of seemingly never-ending prosperity came to a screeching halt. Restaurants replaced their $150 tasting menus with $30 prix fixe options, companies “downsized,” eliminating jobs in nearly every sector of the economy, and families canceled holiday-travel plans as they searched for fun on a limited budget. By the end of the year, some 60 percent of Americans reported they were “struggling,” according to the Gallup well-being index. Time didn’t heal all wounds: 2009 wasn’t much better, with unemployment topping 10 percent and disillusionment about the after-effects of big-ticket corporate bailouts. As a nation, we felt out of control. As individuals, we tried to figure out how we’d stay afloat if times got tougher.

And our trophy kids were in a state of shock. For those looking toward college, there was new panic about how to afford such costly education. For those in college, job prospects after graduation were bleak. As one young man said to me, “It was like, WTF. I mean, what just happened here? The rug just got pulled out from under us and suddenly you want us to become these resilient, frugal people? How?”

“WTF” is a crass exclamation of frustration commonly heard among a generation of young adults raised with expectations of affluence — only to come of age in an economic recession. Yet this is also an optimistic generation headed for a bright future — if they learn the timeless, virtue-based self-management and interpersonal skills needed to succeed. The idea was to rebrand this crass expression into one of virtue-based empowerment for a wise, tenacious, and fearless future.

I wanted to make the book approachable and relatable from the start. I didn’t want to be the schoolmarm telling them to sit up straight. Talking in language that young adults understand, without talking down to them — or dumbing it down — is what’s important.


Lopez: What age range are you most focused on?

Whelan: 18-to-25-year-olds. The book is great for graduating high-school students heading to college, those looking for an edge in college, and graduating seniors facing a tough job market. But it’s also an excellent kick in the rear end for the recent grad who has been sitting on your couch for the last two months.


Lopez: What’s different about this generation you are focused on?

Whelan: Nearly all my students struggled with self-regulation now that they were on their own — procrastination, going out the night before a test, finding the balance between work and play. The vast majority had financial pressures, including student loans, credit-card debt, finding money to pay for textbooks — not to mention searching for jobs in school and after graduation. Health issues, from drinking and drugs to weight, body image, and sexuality, were common, and tense personal interactions — dramas with roommates, significant others, family, friends, and the quest to be cool — were nearly universal.

And those were just the problems they are aware of or willing to share with me. In the shadows, students struggled with the definition of honesty, both in social interactions — where is the line between being polite and telling the cold, hard truth? — and in their academic life — is it cheating to share answers if everyone is doing it? Looming ahead is the prospect of graduating into the worst economy in 30 years, high unemployment rates, and an uncertain financial future.

As I catalogued these personal stories, a pattern began to emerge: In this new financial climate, young adults are struggling with four common core virtues that we didn’t teach them — perseverance, thrift, honesty, and self-control. Core values are best taught by example, and for the last two decades, few of us have been very good role models of these time-honored, but challenging, classic virtues. Think of it this way: Five years ago, as you took out a mortgage for a house “just a bit” out of your price range, and bought that 64-inch flat-screen TV to grace the new living-room wall, what would good old Ben Franklin have said? Or, better yet, what would your Depression-era grandmother have said? And when you went ahead with these purchases, what message did it send to your children?

Generation WTFers are ill-equipped to deal with the current economic climate because they had few role models of core virtues and more demands on their immediate attention. For my students, delaying gratification by foregoing beers for books, and sending hundreds of résumés to land an entry-level job, was not just challenging, but seemed pointless. (“Great, so I can work really hard just to have a chance to work even harder,” quipped one junior.) Few students could define the word thrift, much less conceive of the fact that there might be a moral component to the right use of money. To these young adults, honesty meant blunt, even rude, in-your-face confrontations, an attitude that would do them no favors in work settings, where social graces often determine advancement opportunities. And for a generation that has grown up with the Internet and instant gratification, self-control was considered an admirable character trait — for later in life, but just not right now.

Certainly, these problems are not unique to this generation. But two truths seemed to complicate students’ search for behavioral change: First, young adults believe that their challenges are unique to their generation. My students seemed initially incredulous that previous generations might have struggled — and overcome — difficulties with money, self-control, procrastination, and honesty. Our problems are totally new and individual, they’d tell me, even as I tried to explain that we’ve seen similar boom-and-bust periods before. Second, and most concerning, my students didn’t know where to turn for help. Perhaps more so than previous generations, Millennials lack the psychological resources and behavioral skills to make the best choices.

Millennials have been left feeling unmoored because their parents, their primary socializers, spent more time focusing on self-esteem than on self-control: In times of plenty we postpone the pain to enjoy the pleasures of life. But we also do our fair share of navel-gazing — we focus on psychological awareness and greater discussion of emotions until the sin is not to have problems, but to avoid talking about and fixing them. Focusing on feeling good isn’t much help unless you actually have the skills and dedication to improve your circumstances. Self-esteem is nothing without self-efficacy.

Yet this solipsism might be the silver lining for Generation WTFers in crisis: For this “me generation,” self-improvement is the air they breathe, and since they have few other role models to turn to, I wondered whether young adults might find the advice, guidance, and models they need for a new life script within classic self-help literature — old-school virtue-based advice written before they were even born.

Previous generations didn’t start reading self-help until their 30s or 40s. But this generation was raised in a therapeutic culture — talking about personal improvement is part of the air they breathe. I was impressed by how quickly most students took to the idea of implementing behavioral change in their lives, and what impressive results they demonstrated after just a few months of road-testing the advice.

The conventional wisdom is that this generation is totally self-involved, but a better way to look at it is that this is what kids are really good at — they are good at talking about themselves and following their emotions. So this is harnessing that to help them have the future they want.


Lopez: Why would a sociologist lower herself to a self-help book?

Whelan: Virtues like perseverance, thrift, honesty, and self-control aren’t particularly “fluffy” subjects; they all ask for behavioral change requiring effort and dedication. But I could clearly see that my students could benefit from lessons in these time-honored virtues — if only they would be engaged enough to actually embark on such personal change — so I tried a new approach to virtue-based learning: Rather than recommending a philosophy class focusing on Aristotle and Aquinas, I created a virtue-based self-help course featuring Carnegie and Covey.

Shocked? While many deride self-help books as fluffy feel-good texts, for nearly three centuries Americans have turned to self-help books to take control of their lives — in good times, and in bad. I’ve studied the titles that have become catch-phrases for a complete set of popular-psychology attitudes: I’m OK — You’re OK; The Power of Positive Thinking; Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. I’ve crafted rigorous content analyses of bestselling titles to uncover the “formula” of success. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on the core principles and arguments of self-help books. And along the way, I’ve combed through the advice to find the nuggets of enduring, virtue-based wisdom in these popular paperbacks.

Yes, it would be wonderful if more students learned the importance of virtue-based living through the Classics, but my goal was more practical: I had seen hundreds of students struggling with avoidable problems, and I wanted to offer students tools for behavioral change. Carnegie, Covey, and other bestselling advice authors studied the work of ancient philosophers and thinkers to craft their modern guides, and what How to Win Friends and Influence People may lack in intellectual gravitas, it makes up for in readability and accessibility, especially for the short-attention-span Millennials.

Like it or not, the tone of bestselling self-help books tells us a lot about the cultural climate. In recent boom times, self-help books have advised readers of get-rich-quick schemes (Secrets of the Millionaire Mind), encouraged inner-directed soul-searching (Codependent No More) and taught us how to use psychology to get an edge on the competition (Awaken the Giant Within).

Self-help earned its reputation as a frivolous genre after decades of these sorts of quick-fix solutions and meaningless platitudes. But self-help didn’t use to be so vapid. Indeed, historically the message of self-help is one that advises individuals to build their character through virtuous behavior, build a career through hard work and delayed gratification, build relationships through commitment, and build a nest egg through thrift.

Deprivation and hard times require honest advice, not inner-child soul-searching or corner-cutting business tricks — but young adults don’t have to come up with these axioms on their own. By turning back to some of the most useful advice offered by bestselling self-help books of the last 150 years, I hoped students could revive and relearn the virtues that will carry them through modern crises. In short, I told my class, it’s time to look back at yesterday’s self-help and ask if it might be useful once more today.

Indeed, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the increasing popularity of self-improvement in the U.S. Since 1975, the number of self-help books has more than doubled as a percentage of total titles in print in the United States, and there are more than 40,000 self-help titles in print today. Self-improvement workshops, tapes, videos, and seminars are big business as well. The entire industry took in more than $11 billion in 2008 — 14 percent more than in 2005 — and is expected to grow at a rate of 6 percent each year through 2012. We can’t ignore this genre.

I created a course to expose students to the best of classic self-help — and give them an opportunity to remix, update, and personalize it. The idea was to help students get from that WTF of frustration to a Wise, Tenacious, and Fearless place of empowerment — and after watching more than 300 students road-test the advice in my book, the results are impressive: Ninety-two percent of the testers said they learned something new about themselves and 86 percent said these advice guides reminded them of skills they’d once learned as kids, but forgotten as they grew up.


Lopez: Is self-help the religion of a secular age?

Whelan: Yes and no. The best of self-help reminds us of core virtues much as a good Sunday sermon might. But self-help is a very individualistic genre — it’s about how you can better yourself, rather than what you can do to serve others.

Still, just as we go to religious services to hear the same Scripture and readings year in and year out, there’s no need to come up with new quick-fix bells and whistles for personal success: Core concepts of perseverance, self-control, honesty, and thrift run throughout the best of the genre, and serve as necessary reminders for us all.


Lopez: You talk about setting smarter goals? Do our education system and our culture encourage unrealistic goals?

Whelan: As a culture, we encourage “goals” in a broad sense, but often don’t offer young adults the tools and space to make those goals a reality. Just having a goal won’t do you much good unless you understand the “why” behind it (why do you want to achieve this goal?) and you break down the goal into clear, manageable steps. The smarter goal-setting method is a simple and research-based way to help people turn amorphous goals into realities.


Lopez: Should everyone who just graduated from college read this book?

Whelan: Yes! As should all high-school graduates and incoming college freshmen. While it’s written specifically for the 18-to-25 set, the advice is applicable to anyone, regardless of their age.


Lopez: I’m in my 20s and unemployed. Have been for a few years. How can WTF help me?

Whelan: Get wise: Figure out your purpose and where you want to go in life.

Get tenacious: Set goals and break the procrastination-stress cycle.

Get fearless: Become empowered to make smart choices about money; learn how to avoid arguments and ace interviews.

Generation WTF is a workbook, not just a book you read and put aside. If you really want to make a change, this book has the research for how to do it — and then the practical guidance for how to personalize the advice for your own life.

Lopez: I’m in my 30s and unemployed. How can your book help me

Whelan: You’ll pick up this book and say, “Oh, I know all of this.” But knowing the concepts in the abstract is different from applying them to your life. Yes, these ideas are simple. Yes, you think you’ve heard it all before. Working through the book — setting and achieving goals, figuring out where your money goes, making more meaningful relationships through boosting your interpersonal skills — will give you a competitive advantage in the job market, and help you get back on your feet both professionally and personally.

Lopez: Is “Understanding Your Values” different from the “understand your value” mantra? Are both important?

Whelan: Young adults are much more likely to have good self-esteem than they are to have good self-efficacy — meaning they are more likely to think they are fabulous than to have that sense of accomplishment of a job well done.

In part, this is because we don’t ask questions about why we make the choices we make. What are the guiding principles of our lives — and do we live them each day?

Understanding your values means figuring out what’s important to you and why. Your values guide your decisions, both big and small. Values are what’s important to you, what you cherish about yourself and your relationship with others. Values are about who you want to be — and yet, for some reason, we spend very little time thinking about our values.

Values are different from goals: Goals are what you want to do, while values are who you want to be. Having a million dollars is a goal, not a value. Becoming famous is a goal, not a value. But to accomplish either of those goals means understanding what’s important to you as an individual.

Letting students customize their own advice and find their own path works a lot better with this generation than the usual my-way-or-the-highway advice of many self-help guides. Asking students to define their core values — and then keep those values front-and-center on a day-to-day basis — helps them make better decisions about how to spend their time and money. One student made his values the wallpaper on his phone, while another clipped her core values to her credit card to rein in her spending.


Lopez: You have a whole chapter on self-control. Can you do a seminar for congressmen and Hollywood?

Whelan: Self-control is like a muscle. You build it up over time, and when you get exhausted from exerting too much self-control, it becomes harder to stay on track. Unfortunately, the congressmen and Hollywood celebs in the spotlight seem unable to train their self-control muscles to keep their other parts in check.


Lopez: Why would you ever want to “trick yourself” into self-control?

Whelan: Self-control isn’t particularly sexy or fun. It’s not something that you can do once and be done with. It requires continued commitment to your goal. Real personal control means saying no over and over again to that extra cookie, partying on a school night, and the like. Behavioral economists call this “intertemporal choice.” The decisions you make today impact the tomorrows a long way out, and the costs and benefits may be spread over time. This, of course, makes self-control harder to keep up, because we tend to like to make short-term decisions (i.e. play now, pay later) that don’t keep up the bargain of our long-term self-control strategies.

The quest for self-improvement is, at core, a quest to increase self-control. This is a bonus for any reader of Generation WTF because one of the most frustrating elements of self-control research is that people who demonstrate self-control skills are more likely to be self-controlled in the future.

But all of this sounds exhausting, right? So that’s why tricking yourself into self-control with some subconscious priming choices can be a low-cost way to push yourself in the right direction. In Generation WTF I translate some of the latest self-control research into applicable skills you can use to make this work for you.


Lopez: We’ve spent recent days talking about sexting and graphic tweeting, thanks to a congressman. Is this the reality of our world today? And if he’s in his 40s, what must they be doing in their 20s?

Whelan: You don’t want to know.

But the idea that “everyone’s doing it” — whether it comes to premarital sex, sexting, rainbow parties, or whatever the new scare is about our youth culture — is just plain wrong. When you ask young adults what their values are, it’s amazing how often “faith” and “strong marriage” and “loyalty” and “honesty” come up. Allowing them the space to identify their own values, and then encouraging them to live those self-chosen values, is a great way to help them keep themselves on the right track.


Lopez: In light of recent news, should you really be encouraging people to meet online?

Whelan: Sure. Just get offline and meet in person — in a public place — as soon as possible. Technology isn’t the problem. It’s power-hungry, deviant people lacking in self-control and honesty who create the problem.

Lopez: Is your advice to draw “bright lines” deeply countercultural?

Whelan: Perhaps, but it’s also the accepted wisdom of the psychological community when it comes to overcoming addiction and fostering behavioral change of any sort. Most of us don’t do well in those grey areas where we get to choose what is “enough” or “too much.” The reason the Atkins diet is so popular is that it’s easier to say “no carbs, ever” than to say “I’ll eat a bit of everything in moderation.” Research shows alcoholics can’t have “just a few drinks,” just as those who are chronic procrastinators can’t go out with friends the night before a project is due “just for an hour.”

While self-control isn’t costless — you give up something when you draw a bright line and commit to a decision of behavior change — it can be quite liberating, as long as you are clear about your values and goals.

Lopez: Stephen Covey seems to be your go-to guru? Why is his advice highly effective? What is his most highly effective advice?

Whelan: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a real book. It’s long, it’s full of well-researched advice, and there aren’t many pictures or charts or worksheets. Students complained about reading it because there was too much text on the page. But once they did, they found that the advice both resonated with them and empowered them to make better choices.

In Generation WTF, I’ve remixed some of the most useful nuggets of wisdom in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, specially geared toward this generation of young adults with more interactive elements, fewer lengthy explanations, and lots of bite-sized boxes.

Covey’s advice all boils down to the importance of taking personal responsibility for your actions. This is a message we all need to hear, and one that can be both tough love and empowering for young adults. By making commitments, and following through on them, Generation WTF will boost their self-efficacy as they achieve their goals.

Covey writes, “Some people say that you have to like yourself before you can like others. I think that idea has merit, but if you don’t know yourself, if you don’t control yourself, if you don’t have mastery over yourself, it’s very hard to like yourself, except in some short-term, psych-up, superficial way.” And achieving this kind of personal control — part of what Covey calls the private victories necessary for success — means accepting responsibility for your actions.

To put yourself in control of your life immediately, Covey says, one must “make a promise — and keep it. Or we can set a goal — and work to achieve it. As we make and keep commitments, even small commitments, we begin to establish an inner integrity that gives us the awareness of self-control and the courage and strength to accept more of the responsibility for our own lives.”

For Tim, 21, personal responsibility translated to personal rewards. “It doesn’t take much energy to delay in doing something in order to finish your goals first, but it really pays off in the end. It helps give an incentive to doing what needs to be done anyway. Rewarding yourself can be a powerful tool in self-change. This type of discipline and self-control takes some effort, but I think it really works.”


Lopez: Who is a good model of fearlessness?

Whelan: By my definition, getting “fearless” means thinking about someone other than yourself. It means improving your relationships, improving your interactions with others, and making more meaningful connections to your community.

I’d encourage young adults to think about someone in their own lives who exudes this outward-focused attitude on life and try to model their behavior a bit more. What’s it like to think about others first? What’s it like to express genuine interest in someone else?

There’s no need for a famous role model. Find someone in your everyday life and then try it for yourself.


Lopez: Would your money section be good advice for lawmakers? Wall Street?

Whelan: Very few people know the real definition of thrift: It’s not about hoarding money, but about the “right use” of everything from time to resources. Thrift is the virtue of making smart choices and understanding the psychology of decision-making. Thrift is about generosity, and conservation, and thrift is a learned skill.

There’s a morality to thrift that comes from faith traditions, from socially constructed ideas of what it means to be a good citizen, and from economic structures like capitalism. For Benjamin Franklin, who personified and promoted the idea in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, among other works, thrift meant working productively, consuming wisely, saving proportionally, and giving generously. Thrift was a mark of good character and civic progress, and necessary for both individual gain and social well-being.

Keeping up with that theme was Samuel Smiles, a British self-help author who, in his 1876 book, Thrift, told readers that thrift is the daughter of Prudence, the sister of Temperance, and the mother of Liberty — an essential character trait for good living. And even in the late-19th century, thrift was a virtue few possessed, he said. He described the financial landscape of England at the time as full of suffering not from want of money, but from waste of it:

In “prosperous times” they spend their gains recklessly, and when adverse times come, they are at once plunged in misery. Money is not used, but abused; and when wage-earning people should be providing against old age, or for the wants of a growing family, they are, in too many cases, feeding folly, dissipation, and vice. Let no one say that this is an exaggerated picture. It is enough to look round in any neighbourhood, and see how much is spent and how little is saved; what a large proportion of earnings goes to the beershop, and how little to the savings bank or the benefit society.

Sound familiar? This is a pretty good description of the last decade of our lives as well.

Lopez: Why is smiling important?

Whelan: A smile is the universal language of welcome, of happiness, of pleasure. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that smiling makes other people smile, and make you happier, too. It’s a costless way to boost your mood and improve your interactions with others.

The Generation WTF testers I worked with had success smiling in interviews to create a more comfortable setting, smiling at the office to create more workplace satisfaction, smiling while walking down the street to boost their mood, and even smiling on the phone. (Research has found that you can vocally communicate a smile.)

My personal favorite: Smile at airline check-in and security personnel, and other people who usually get yelled at by angry customers. Not only is it a nice, kind, and polite thing to do, but you’re more likely to sneak an overweight bag onto the plane or get that 3.2 oz. liquid container into your carry-on.


Lopez: Will doing an honest day’s work daily keep you from trouble?

Whelan: No, but dishonesty is going to land you in hot water a lot faster. Plus, this generation is sick of dishonest business practices: Generation WTF has seen a lot of business corruption — and all the harm it can do. At a time when Ponzi schemes, investor fraud, and high-level deception seem to dominate the news, Generation WTFers were glad to be reminded of the fact that honesty and hard work are, indeed, the best ways to success. And at the risk of sounding preachy, I included classic advice from Samuel Smiles’s 1880 book, Duty, because WTFers I interviewed were passionate about reclaiming business ethics and honesty in the workplace.


Lopez: Why do you encourage asking for favors?

Whelan: It’s called the Franklin Effect, because Benjamin Franklin was so good at harnessing the power of this little interpersonal trick. To get people to like you, ask them for a small favor. This is the ultimate win/win scenario.

Way back when, Ben Franklin asked a fellow legislator to lend him a hard-to-find book that Franklin knew this other guy had in his library. The man agreed, and after Franklin returned it, the two struck up a conversation — something that they hadn’t really done before. “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged,” Franklin is quoted as having said.

What WTF testers realized is that this strategy works only when you do it face-to-face. Ask to borrow a book or a video game, or for a bit of advice. It makes people feel needed and important. But don’t ask via text message or e-mail — which is particularly necessary (and challenging) advice for a generation that (seemingly) would interact with the world mostly via SMS if given the opportunity.


Lopez: What was Dale Carnegie’s best, timeless advice?

Whelan: Dale Carnegie’s classic advice in How to Win Friends and Influence People was the biggest hit with Generation WTF. Students used Carnegie’s advice to improve their relationships by thinking in terms of the other person’s interests and to ace interviews by smiling, remembering names, and making sure to speak in the interviewer’s language. And there were some funny examples of Carnegie in action 75 years after his book first came out: One student talked his way out of a speeding ticket by admitting his mistake to the officer and deferring to his authority.

His best advice is to be genuinely interested in others — and express that interest by asking people questions, learning from them, and not making every conversation all about you. This was something that Generation WTFers initially worried would be “fake” — expressing interest in someone to get them to like you and help you in some way — but they made more friends, had better interactions with their colleagues at work, and learned more from their professors and mentors . . . and they were converted to Carnegie-style interpersonal skills that will last a lifetime.


Lopez: Why are you anti-cohabitation?

Whelan: More than 30 years of research demonstrates that cohabitation doesn’t help your chances of having a long-lasting marriage. The “try it before you buy it” attitude can actually undermine commitment. But we also need to be open to the new research that suggests that cohabiting with one person — the person you marry — may not increase the chances of divorce. The bottom line on cohabitation is that you’d think it would help, because you’d give the relationship a test run before making a commitment, but that’s not true: At best, it’s a push. At worst, if you are a serial cohabiter, it can increase your odds of divorce significantly.


Lopez: What’s your most important advice?

Whelan: Figure out who you are by determining your core values — and then keeping those core values front-and-center to guide all your decisions, from spending your money to spending your time.

No one else can tell you what your values are, but thinking about your values is like recalibrating your internal GPS to lead you on the path to success. In The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck says that your view of reality is like a map — and if that map is wrong, you’ll get lost and make poor choices. By avoiding the challenge to figure out what your values are, and what your road map for life should be, you are more likely to be headed in the wrong direction.

Generation WTF really enjoyed this exercise — and found that keeping their values front-and-center on a daily basis helped them make better choices. Jumping off from my advice about clipping a small list of values and money goals to a credit card to cut back on spending, one student clipped a photo of his late high-school classmate to remind him that he had made a pledge to save money and contribute to the scholarship fund in his friend’s name.


Lopez: What have you learned since writing Generation WTF?

Whelan: We all need to be reminded of these core virtues of perseverance, honesty, self-control, and thrift — and fortunately, there’s a growing body of research to show that positive behavioral change is possible, if you go about it in a systematic fashion.

You can change, but quick-fix advice doesn’t work. You will get a job, but you may have to brush up on your interpersonal skills first. For those young adults who want the best nuggets of timeless wisdom and personal-improvement strategies geared specifically toward their generation, Generation WTF is your go-to summer read.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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