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Being a Man in the 21st Century (Part 1)

Being a Man in the 21st Century (Part 1)

Being a Man in the 21st Century

    Manhood is changing. It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that.

    Two recent events prompted me to write about manhood today. The first was the release of The Shriver Report, a study of the status of women in the United States. The second was the publication of The Art of Manliness, a book of advice on manhood based on the popular blog of the same name.

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    The Shriver Report‘s most stunning finding is that women now make up half of the American workforce, and are the primary breadwinner or co-breadwinner in 2/3 of American families. While I think the report goes too far in calling us “a woman’s nation” – for one thing, women still earn much less, both in terms of average annual income and lifetime income, than men – it does highlight a significant change in American culture. People my age and lower will most likely never know a workplace in which men and women don’t figure at least equally.

    The Art of Manliness is one sign of this change. While I haven’t read the book yet, I’ve been following the blog since its inception, and to boil it down to its essence: men are not quite sure how to be anymore.

    Masculinity has been constructed over the last century almost entirely around the idea of men as providers and protectors, and frankly, women don’t need that any more. Already in at least a dozen major metropolitan areas, women earn on average more than men. Women are waiting longer to get married, and are more often the initiators of divorce – with their own incomes, they can afford to be pickier about their spouses, both going into marriage and when deciding whether to continue their relationships.

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    This has all happened in the context of larger social changes that have eliminated a great many jobs that were traditionally the sole province of men – the manufacturing and heavy labor jobs that relied on a powerful physique and a kind of working class swagger, most of which have been either automated or off-shored. At the same time, a new knowledge economy has sprung up, privileging communication, creativity, and self-motivation over brawn and emotional control. While there’s no inherent reason why women should do better in these emerging businesses than men, the fact is that men have largely given over the field while wasting time twiddling our thumbs over the loss of jobs where “men could be men”.

    What do I mean? Well, women now make up the majority of college and grad school students, even in many areas in science and technology traditionally considered to be men’s domains. Boys almost never read – only some 1 out of 5 young adult books are read by boys, who have determined that reading books is for sissies. Boys are more likely to drop out of high school (35% of boys vs 28% of girls in 2003).

    Basically, instead of learning how to be men in a changing world, we’ve been boys, dragged kicking and screaming into a world where women are increasingly equal players. Waaahhhh!

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    Emphasis on “kicking” – instead of figuring out how to do this new thing, we’ve focused most of our energy on simply emphasizing the characteristics that traditionally defined masculinity, namely toughness and physical brawn. Even our toys have been affected! For instance, below are two pictures of Luke Skywalker dolls. On the left is the Luke that I had when I was a boy, right after the first movie came out. On the right is a more recent version of the same character.

    Luke Skywalker figures comparison

      As you can see, the farm boy from Tattooine has been working out quite a bit since his debut in 1977! The same bulking up can be seen in nearly all figures aimed at boys – they’ve become more muscular, conveying a greater impression of raw physical power.

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      This wouldn’t be especially remarkable if not for the fact that physical power is less and less needed in our society – even in the military. These toys embody ideals that are increasingly disconnected with the reality that we live in, a kind of ironic nostalgia for a time when “men were men”. (Ironic because, when we look back at those men, they were quite a bit softer and less physically imposing than we think!)

      In the end, the exaggerated emphasis on toughness and physical strength are misleading – and besides creating a great deal of violence in our society, they are preventing us from thinking in constructive ways about the kind of men we could be in today’s world. And that’s too bad, because the changes we’re living in are largely positive – men are, or could be, much more connected with their families and their partners, women are getting the opportunity to develop identities that aren’t solely defined by motherhood, and the workforce is getting a much larger pool of people to draw talent from. Win-win-win!

      I’ll be back later in the week with a follow-up to this post describing some of the ways I think men can more productively engage the society we live in – without sacrificing some core sense of our identities as men. But before I do that, I wanted to get a sense of what you see as masculine in the new century. Men, how is your life different from your fathers’? Women, what do you want and expect from the men in your lives? Let’s get a discussion going!

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      Last Updated on January 21, 2020

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

      This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

      The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

      The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

      Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

      Curiosity

      Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

      People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

      Patience

      Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

      When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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      Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

      A Feeling for Connectedness

      This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

      A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

      The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

      How to Self-Taught Effectively

      With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

      1. Research

      Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

      Learning the Basics

      Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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      Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

      What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

      Hitting the Books

      Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

      Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

      Long-Term Reference

      While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

      My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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      2. Practice

      Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

      A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

      Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

      Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

      3. Network

      One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

      These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

      Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

      Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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      4. Schedule

      For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

      Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

      Final Thoughts

      In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

      If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

      At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

      More About Self-Learning

      Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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