Jason Ryan Dorsey’s title is, frankly, confusing. To normal speakers of English, a “reality check” is bad news (and of course has nothing to do with monetary checks). If a reality check bounced, that would presumably be welcome — the bad news gets returned for nonpayment, as it were. That would both make sense and fit with the overall theme of Dorsey’s book: The book dispenses advice to young people about how to improve their lives — about, in short, conquering one’s reality check.
But Dorsey absolutely mangles his title. From his point of view, if a reality check “bounces,” that’s bad news; success is “cashing” your reality check. Each chapter of the book features pairs of affirmations, with failing ones labeled “bounced,” and winning ones labeled “cashed.” It’s not clear what’s worse: That Dorsey has never met a cliché he can’t embrace, or that he misuses them so prominently. It’s possible to open the book to almost any page and note strings of hackneyed, clichéd phrases filling out the paragraphs. These strings frequently degenerate hilariously into meaninglessness: “You may disagree, but taking a closer look at your past experiences reveals that everything in your life up to this point has happened for a reason — even if that reason was only to lead you to today”. In a real sense, Dorsey’s book demonstrates its own thesis: He has written a book passionately urging young people to act on their dreams rather than passively accept their unhappy surroundings, and clearly it’s possible to publish successfully despite the lack of any noticeable ability with the language.
To be fair, the mass-market self-help book is usually not the place to find well-wrought prose. The strengths of My Reality Check Bounced! lie elsewhere: in Dorsey’s performance of enthusiastic sincerity, and in his assemblage of stories of achievement. The actual advice he gives is pretty much standard-issue productivity and self-help boilerplate: Your biggest limits are self-imposed, take responsibility for your life, etc. Sometimes, in fact, his enthusiasm for his stories leads him into contradiction. For example, the chapter on networking begins with a caution: “Many twentysomethings mistakenly believe that building a powerful network from scratch requires going out and boldly meeting as many different people as they can […], but for where you’re going, the quality of people in your network is much more important than the quantity”. But the first person he introduces, Jerry Harris, a businessman with an amazing zeal for meeting people, doesn’t follow Dorsey’s advice. He introduces himself to anyone who gives him a chance. The occasional misalignment of story to advice suggests that the stories are what’s interesting about the book, because they show that change is possible.
Dorsey’s basic point to twentysomethings (and, he admits, thirtysomethings) is that you don’t have to feel locked into your life. The somewhat ludicrous recent Zach Braff movie, The Last Kiss, is about this phenomenon: Zach Braff’s character and his girlfriend (played by Jacinda Barrett) are expecting a baby, and he panics. Believing his entire life is now scripted out, he lashes out, sleeping with the first cute brunette (Rachel Bilson) daring enough to wear a red dress to a wedding. To characters like these, Dorsey has a powerful message: There is no script, or, if there is, you yourself are the author. The belief that you are locked into a script that you didn’t write is the surest way to make yourself miserable.
Anyone who teaches in a state university can instantly think of scores of students who fit the following profile: smart, dutiful, well-meaning men and women who manage to do well enough in school despite having no real interest in their major. They successfully execute their assignments, but nothing about their chosen field seems to excite their curiosity. (Perhaps, though, they’re fired up about their minor, or about an elective class.) When you speak to these students, the problem becomes clear: Their major has been chosen for them, either by their parents, or by an overly persuasive guidance counselor, or even by their own fear of unemployment. These students, frequently but not exclusively first-generation college students, have convinced themselves that following a specific path to graduation will get them the job that will make their parents’, or their own, sacrifice worth it. Likewise, anyone who teaches in the humanities will know perfectly smart students who want to apply to graduate school — or who are already in graduate school — not because they have a clear sense of what doctoral work in the humanities is like, but simply because they “like school,” and don’t quite know what else to do.
I suspect that all of these students, and many people in this age group, could profit from a book like My Reality Check Bounced!, if they can tolerate the writing. That this might be true is, I think, an oblique indictment of the instrumentalization of American education. High schools are increasingly orientated toward preparing students for college (rather than vocational training). Colleges are also these days much more professional in orientation, but this has two very different effects. The rhetoric of pre-professional programs — business, technology prelaw, premedicine — tends to emphasize a script: do this, then this, then this, and presto! here’s your high-paying job. Some faculty in the traditional majors, recoiling justly from the Philistine culture of the pre-professional programs, retreat prematurely from their students’ lives after graduation, waving their hands and saying that graduates from their major can go on to any career, without explaining how that’s going to work. People suffering from this double bind–who can’t figure out why they’re miserable in their high-powered marketing job, or why they’re still trapped in low-wage service jobs despite their academic brilliance — may well draw strength from Jason Ryan Dorsey’s reminder that starter jobs, starter homes, and starter relationships are just that — a start.