Book Review "The Coddling of the American Mind" by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

Reviewed by 1stLts Steven Arango & Zach Smith

The title of this book might scare off people who would deeply enjoy it. Though its title is prone to the misinterpretation that the book serves as an embrace of the dismissive attitude some people have towards so-called “snowflakes,” The Coddling of the American Mind should be a mandatory read for everyone—especially millennials who are exhausted by the lazy and spoiled narrative surrounding their existence. Everyone can profit from the perspective offered in this book.

The authors identify themselves as a liberal and a centrist, respectively; neither have ever voted for a Republican for Congress or the Presidency. They engage with some of the most important, “hot button” issues of the day not with partisan zeal, but rather with a nuanced understanding gained from thoughtful study and academic expertise. The Coddling of the American mind has only one agenda in mind: the pursuit of truth.

Its approach to issues is something any leader should take to heart. Each topic raised is treated by way of a similar pattern: the authors first discuss the root cause of the  issue; they then move to address solutions aimed at alleviating the issue, while considering the consequences each solution may have; and then, finally, they provide a concrete plan for moving forward.

The book is split into four parts, each with a distinct focus, but all connected to the book’s common theme: “education and wisdom”.

Part I discusses three untruths adopted by younger generations that are hurting their growth into successful leaders of tomorrow. These untruths are:

  1. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker;
  2. Always trust your feelings; and
  3. Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

 Part II shows these untruths in action; the three great untruths are being celebrated in the official policies of universities across the country, and the book gives many examples of how the untruths are warping students’ thinking. Part III explains why these untruths are permeating our society (plot twist: there are several reasons). And, lastly, Part IV offers concrete advice on how to improve “childrearing, K-12 education, and universities.” 

But the book is much more than a review of society’s education system and the youth of America. The Coddling of the American Mind challenges how people articulate, analyze, and address serious issues. In fact, we would argue that it provides an underlying theme: usually, societal issues and professional issues are not simple—they are extremely nuanced. One cannot address complicated issues without considering the consequences of proposed solutions, both the intended and—especially—unintended ones. The book forces the reader to think critically about any issue she is facing with this perspective.

As the above hopefully makes abundantly clear, leaders from all backgrounds should read this book. The authors provide a straightforward discussion of a number of important facets of human nature, which can be applied in any professional setting. Understanding how and why humans operate will always help leaders approach volatile issues. The Coddling of the American Mind provides the path forward in any adverse situation: rather than pointing fingers or simply falling back on what has always been done, the book advocates productive disagreement and challenging the status quo. As leaders we should embrace the idea that “having people around us who are willing to disagree with us is a gift,” not an obstacle.  

Societies, companies, and organizations improve through the “challenging and testing [of] ideas.” When leaders forget this principle or decline to apply it—at some point—failure is inevitable. Even if reform occurs under these conditions, it is unlikely to succeed because of the narrow, sheltered approach used. And every decision is followed by a domino effect, creating lasting secondary benefits or negative consequences. When individuals prevent criticism, uncomfortable ideas, truth and facts disaster will follow. The Emperor, indeed, wears no clothes.

Choosing the best advice from the book is like trying to pick your favorite dish from your grandma—it’s almost impossible. But one line that struck us, tucked away at the end of the book, was “argue as if you’re right, but listen as if you’re wrong.” Simple advice, but difficult to follow. Any leader able to add this one piece of the authors’ advice to their toolkit will forever be better for it.

First Lieutenant Steven Arango is currently clerking for U.S. District Judge ­Fernando Rodriguez, Jr. After completion of his clerkship, he will return to active duty in the Marine Corps as a judge advocate. 

First Lieutenant Zach Smith is a recent graduate of the University of Alabama School of Law and currently serves as Judge Advocate in the United States Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.