Monday, June 8, 2015

Don't colonize their lives with your good intentions.

Ben Horowitz' commencement speech to the Columbia University Class of 2015, Career Advice for Recent Graduates.

He has four themes. My paraphrasing of his ideas:
Think for yourself - It sounds trivial but it is much harder and much more profound than that.

Don't Follow Your Passion - Passions are hard to prioritize. Passions are subject to change. Passion doesn't correlate with ability. Passion is ego-centric.

Follow Your Contribution - What you put in is much more important than what you take from the world. What can you contribute?

You Don't Have to Fix the World - The world is not collapsing. It doesn't need you to fix it. Make your contribution.
I concur.

In the past fifteen or twenty years it seems like schools, in particular high schools, have sold two bills of goods.

"Follow your passion" is one of them. Sounds good but it only makes sense if you pair it with "and accept the consequences." I don't care what you are passionate about, I care what you can do and can do well. They might be the same thing; usually they aren't. I suspect that the imbibing of the "follow your passion" ethos has contributed to the widening perception that an emotional argument is just as valid as an evidence-based argument. "Because I care, it must be true" is the implied belief system. This is immensely destructive to good life outcomes.

I first noticed this perhaps fifteen years ago when resumes from recent college grads suddenly became studded with declarations of passion. "I am passionate about customer service", "I am passionate about solving problems", even such unlikely formulations as "I am passionate about accurate accounting." Fine and dandy but what are you actually good at?

The second bills of good is this notion that high school children not only can but are expected to "fix the world." Perhaps it is just the circles I run in but there is always someone's child who is raising money to start a foundation to address serious social issue X or starting a campaign to advocate for Y or in some other way making the world better. These are 12-18 year olds. They are good kids but they don't understand the world and they can't make a difference through their own actions. It is nice to encourage them to reach for the stars but let's not lie to them. And the cynic would cast a jaundiced eye at all these do good efforts and say that this is just class privilege trying to help their children signal to admissions offices.

Figure out how you can sustain yourself and those near and dear to you through the magic of the marketplace. If you are able to create goods and services that others desire, you are ipso facto making the world a better place one idea or a widget at a time. And if you are so good at it that you are able to amass millions, then by all means invest in initiatives that likely might make a difference. But don't expect to be able to do that with your own earned money when you are still a child or young adult.

Instead, go outside and play, spend time with friends, try and do things and build things, fail, fall down, get back up, stare at the sky, lie down in a meadow, watch the clouds flow by, read good books, play an instrument, push yourself, break an arm, gash your head or twist an ankle. Leave the solving of complex problems to the people who are actually living those problems. Don't colonize their lives with your good intentions.

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