How The System Works – An Interpretation of Excellent Sheep

William Deresiewicz has one of the most receptive writing styles I’ve ever encountered. The way he expresses ideas results in an effortless and complete transfer of his meaning into your zone of perception. After about 5 days of taking in his words from beginning to end in his book, Excellent Sheep, I came away with a larger sense of the values at work in today’s professional society.

The words I use here are a summary of what I understood from reading the book. You have to read his book in detail to gain the full meaning of the message William Deresiewicz has to share. I will promise you one thing if you do read his book. Reading Excellent Sheep will show you much about today’s society in terms of how leaders of society are taught. They way top leaders are taught, what they are taught, and what they believe often define the reality that results.

You may decide you want to become one of these top leaders. At the very least, you may decide you want to go further socially and economically in your quest to be better. The details shared by William Deresiewicz shows us the price of admission to the top club and how that can shape who you are. It is a preview into what exists and what may be missing in those places that cultivate higher learning and higher people.


Based on William’s experience, the top 4 careers leading institutions of learning prepare you for are law, medicine, finance, and consulting. As a consultant, your job is to use the general part of your education to evaluate the processes of an organization and apply your skills in interpretation, analysis, and research to shape organizational policy. William describes the conditions and kinds of cultivated sense of the world that often lead students to eventually chose lifetime service in finance and consulting when their course of study might have indicated a different direction.


What are the kinds of leaders that higher learning institutions produce? How does the leadership that people learn in the military and the service industry differ from the kinds of leadership emphasized and valued by higher learning institutions? When we see in the media reference to good leadership or poor leadership, what kind of leadership values are we speaking about? Where do our leaders come from, not just in politics, but in business, community and elsewhere? What does it say about their leadership values and how it is received by those they lead and the results of that leadership when we consider where their sense of self and vision was formed?

Liberal Arts versus Technical Research

You should know that William actually goes into the history of college. I learned a tremendous amount about today’s world through this span across the origins and evolution of college. We see that a liberal arts education, properly defined and delivered, often results in the kinds of broad generalists who are thoughtful about the world and the decisions they make. They are thinkers in the classic sense of the term. Researchers, in this context, inherit a process from the German university model in which the furthering of technology, science, engineering, and technical skill (arts, performance, or otherwise) are the chief aims of study. Based on what I read, he seems to suggest that too much emphasis has been placed on research at the expense of quality teaching. The impact of this instructional imbalance may define a deficit in the quality of strategic and long-term thinking.

Illusion of Equality

I have heard it said that education is the great equalizer. It turns out not to be true. Rather, one definite outcome of education is often to become well socialized. That can be an advantage in terms of eligibility to function well in certain environments. Yet, where you were socialized and with whom you are affiliated becomes the measure of greatest distinction. It is all understandable as who would not want their descendants to rise as high as possible? Yes, it becomes obvious that few of us actually wins a prosperous place in this society by intelligence and effort alone. On many occasions, we simply win the lottery, for a time. The system maintains the relative weight of families and their legacy by design and to live any other way means to consider what does fairness, equality, social justice and deserved opportunity really mean.

How We View and Live Life

Our walls, houses, clothes, technology, and laws separate us from the brutal pain of bare weather and some forms of physical hardship. Still, we live in a society of both competition and cooperation. Essentially, we compete for the opportunity to cooperate in teams and organizations. Compensation is received for these activities and that, in turn, gives us access to the resources we use to refresh and replenish ourselves and gain a greater measure of enjoyment. This can occur according to a technocratic design or it can be the function of a more broadly integrative view.

The quality of our thoughts and our experience of life can be influenced by what we learn with whom we share that life with, friends, co-workers, and others. Will we see such life narrowly as a function of position, skills, and mechanisms? Or, will we see life as a chance to understand the world more broadly and not get caught up in being more than those next to us? This seems to be one of the perspectives that William shares in his book. The chance to outgrow credentialism and instead prove our ideas, demonstrate our plans, and do our best to excel at being a person.

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