May 23, 2018 by Anders Ingemarson
In a recent Wall Street Journal piece “Advice to New Grads: Scale or Bail”, Andy Kessler offers a piece of good advice:
“If you’re employed in a business that scales—and most ‘boring’ jobs are—tell people you’re solving global poverty. Because it’s true. You’ll be more significant than selfish socially conscious conspirators. They get psychic gratification while you get the job done.”
The gist of his argument is that working for a company that achieves economies of scale, regardless of industry, will have more positive impact on human flourishing than volunteering for Habitat of Humanity, a local foodbank—or joining the Peace Corps.
As a college grad, your urge to “make a difference” may be particularly strong. You are finally done with your education and ready to embark on the next stage of your life. You probably share the desire of most human beings to be good by doing good. You have a certain level of moral ambition, if you like. You look for moral principles to live by and act on. You may be too young to think in such terms, but some day when life is drawing to an end, you would like to look back and conclude that you “lived a cool life,” in part implying that you lived a life in accordance with your moral principles.
Is joining the Peace Corps for a couple of years on your “living a cool life” bucket list? Unfortunately, you may be joining for the wrong reasons if the moral code guiding you is altruism.
Altruism, in essence, tells us that we are being good if we give up something of value to us in exchange for selflessly serving others in need. For instance, postponing living a comfortable life and pursuing a fulfilling career in exchange for joining the Peace Corps for a couple of years doing menial work in a developing country. And the higher the value we are willing to give up—the more we’re willing to sacrifice—the cooler it is. After all, what is cool about an unemployed college grad with a major in Bosnian Literature joining the Peace Corps with nothing on the line? No, way cooler is selflessly risking a successful Ivy League career to serve those less fortunate for a couple of years.
But why is it cool to give up something to go to a remote corner of the earth? After all, pursuing a career in corporate America, in a company that is relentlessly looking for new ways to make money by offering products and services that people want is much more likely to produce results. You are far more likely to have a positive impact on people around the globe by being part of an organization that develops, manufactures and sells a higher yield crop, a cheaper car, a new pharmaceutical drug, a more durable fabric for clothing, satellite TV service, online shopping solutions, and the like. But no, that is not cool, at least not compared to selflessly serving in the Peace Corps or a similar organization.
Why is it not cool to be part of corporate America? Because it means that you are primarily pursuing your self-interest. Although you are sure to benefit people all over the world, directly or indirectly, the point is that you are selfishly in it for the prospect of monetary rewards, for the chance of advancement, or simply because you love your job. And the corporation itself exists to make money, the epitome of selfishness. Way not cool.
In our culture, it is not cool to be selfish, to be concerned with one’s own rational self-interest. But it is cool to be altruistic, to give up something of value, to be selfless.
Yet altruism is debilitating. Instead of contributing to living a cool life, altruism does the opposite. Accepting altruism is like accepting a blackmailer’s demands. It does not matter how much you pay up—how much you sacrifice—by selflessly giving up your true values. Like the blackmailer, altruism always finds something more of value to extort from you:
Altruism: “You plan to join the Peace Corps for two years? Why not three?”
You: “I think two years will give me the appreciation for the plight of the people of Farawayland. And it will help me become an advocate for them at home.”
Altruism: “Give you the appreciation! Help you become an advocate! Is this all about you? Don’t be selfish! You should seriously consider extending your service or find something else that is not just about you.”
The result is a nagging feeling of unearned guilt that becomes your constant companion. A feeling of never achieving the moral ideal of selflessness and sacrifice you have accepted, because no matter how much you give up, it is never enough. Not so cool if you ask me.
No, ditch altruism and instead celebrate what’s truly cool—pursuing your own values with a passion. Seek inspiration in the entrepreneur inventing a new amazing product. Be mesmerized by the CEO who turns around a company believed to be lost. Find a role model in the immigrant starting out with nothing, and who through hard work builds a small business that is the pride of her life. Send a thought to the corporate cog-in-the-wheel that you will never hear of whose passion for his job is improving the products and services you buy every day. In fact, draw strength from the example set by every person you meet who guided by rational selfishness is pursuing the dream of the best possible life.
Reject the false moral superiority of the Peace Corps and set your sight on Silicon Valley, Texas oil country, Big Pharma, or Wall Street. Do not accept the unearned guilt produced by the mistaken moral code of your teachers.
Altruism is way not cool. Be a rebel. Turn your back on moral principles demanding sacrifice and selflessness and embrace those that celebrate rational selfishness. Join corporate America, not the Peace Corps, and your chances of living a cool life—and make the world a better place—increase exponentially.