Have you ever wondered what you really stand for? It’s a tough question to answer, and most of us to put off answering it (myself included). I look at people like Aaron Swartz, Edward Snowden and Noam Chomsky with huge admiration because, politics aside, they’ve found an answer that cuts through society and touches on something that feels profoundly meaningful and universal, and have acted on it with conviction. This post contains some thoughts on why I think this question is important for us all to answer for ourselves.
Finding a Ladder to Climb
A common fear expressed by a hypothetical straw man religious person: If we’re not striving for everlasting bliss, what are we here for, and why should anyone follow the rules of morality? Religion provided a ladder to climb, where the next rung was ascended through increased virtue and piety, at least in theory. In today’s secular world this ladder has been been replaced with one more aligned with purely economic motives, where the top is reached when one wins the big competition to add the greatest value to the economy. Respect, admiration, and a feeling of success are afforded by making more and spending more. An important universal truth: we all need something to strive for, and we all need a ladder to climb.
Confusion about which ladder to climb is by far the most common source of dissatisfaction among my fellow recently graduated Millennial brethren. There's ego momentum in the direction of earning more money and prestige for its own sake, counteracted by a desire to figure out why. This purgatory is where many of us currently sit.
I strongly believe that there is inherent beauty in embodying a good life for its own sake, rather than out of fear of punishment for some deity, and I'm not alone. However, when the constraints of religion are removed they are quickly replaced by other, perhaps equally coercive forces. If we are to define our own value system let us embrace it enthusiastically, and not default to the values pushed on us by a system whose only goal is to promote economic growth for its own sake.
Capitalism Doesn’t Care About You
Early on, fear forces us to respect the rat race since it’s the only avenue to a life of prosperity, respect and power over one’s own destiny. This means embracing the that you need a good job, and to get a good job you need to go to a good school, and to go to a good school you need to study hard when you’re young. Fierce competition does not reward daydreamers, so we must focus singularly on making it to the next stage and ignore the broader questions. There are strong forces that will provide us with a value system, but these forces are motivated purely by the needs of 1) a state that wants to maintain stability and 2) An economy that wants to keep growing. These forces don’t care about inherent good or virtue, or human connection or fulfillment. These values are still available to us, but we need to opt in.
Once we have established a sufficient baseline in terms of conventional success, we need to start questioning these forces. Once you’ve addressed the foundations of Maslow’s Hierarchy you’ve gotta keep leveling up. We all want to ‘make the world a better place’. We need to take that idea, figure out what it really means and run with it.
What Are Your Values?
Modern corporations have realized that defining cultural values is crucial to unify its many facets and have a consistent direction over time. Facebook: be bold, focus on impact, move fast, be open, build social value. Microsoft: growth mindset, customer obsession, diversity and inclusion, one Microsoft, and making a difference. Amazon: customer obsession, ownership, invent and simplify, learn and be curious, bias for action, and 9 others. Even though these companies at their core only care about making money, these values scratch an important itch for prospective employees. These values then, theoretically, shape the millions of small decisions and actions made by the employees of the corporation to steer things into a better direction, via repetition throughout company meetings, new employee slideshows and signs in conference rooms. It provides some constraint to an otherwise randomly evolving system.
It would be valuable to repeat this exercise for ourselves, since we too are governed by myriad decision makers, and need constraints that guide how we change over time. This means identifying the things you want to stand for, distilling the big concepts into bite-sized values you can easily remember, and making a practice of trying to adhere to whatever you've decided is valuable. Maybe the corporate values above are trite; figure out some for yourself that are not. Mine will be the topic of a future post. Answering this question should probably be a long and evolving process. If you’ve already figured it out, pat yourself on the back. I’d love to hear what you’ve come up with.
Example: Ben Franklin
Benjamin Franklin was always trying to live a life of virtue, and famously kept track of his adherence to his stated virtues every day, observing at the end of the week in which cases he was succeeding and which he was failing. This is a stellar way to build up a practice. I can’t imagine the number of days I might have compromised on one or many of the principles I hold dear. Observing and being conscious of these cases is the path to improvement.
Your answer very well might be to get married, have kids work a job you enjoy with people you love, and there’s of course nothing wrong with that. On a spectrum between a wall-street banker and Gandhi, it’s up to us to decide where we want to lie.
Once we've satisfied our basic needs and earned freedom within the system, it's important to acknowledge that the skills and values that have brought us this success don’t necessarily translate into a fulfilled or virtuous life on their own. Now that we’ve got a job and a roof over our heads, we should be deliberate about what we want to stand for.