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Money is simply an exchange of value. On the one hand, that phrase allowed me to break past my money barriers a year ago. On the other, it’s complete horseshit.
At one time, money was an exchange of value. But today, when the top 20% of wealthy people hold 80% of the world’s stocks, something is wrong. It means that when companies maximize shareholder profits, they maximize profits for the wealthy and no one else. It means it’s hard to want to lean in or press on in a system like that. And yet, we know or we’ve been told, that financial worth is important. Our measure of worth is often measured in dollars. And Bethany Butzer argues, “if your passion doesn’t lead to a hefty paycheck, it’s viewed as a waste of time.”
Today, we live in a lesser depression, but the actual depression is deep within our minds. Our generation is sick, and overwhelmed with our immense privilege. We can do anything with our lives, and that’s just the issue. This existential crisis – what should we do with our lives? – has not only contributed to the quarter-life crisis phenomenon, but a deep and abiding angst and anxiety now bubbling over the surface.
Most of us sacrifice meaning for paychecks we don’t particularly like. And callings don’t always pay well (contrary to the zealots who argue if you follow your passion, money will follow), so the rest of us sacrifice security for a modicum of self-respect. These aren’t great tradeoffs. Sure, we all hope that at some point the economy will change and worth won’t be measured by the GDP (as Robert F. Kennedy said, “Gross National Product measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”), but in the meantime, we are stuck in between a rock and a hard place.
We optimize our lives for short-term gain, rather than long-term fulfillment. We suffer the “mediocre over the breathtaking,” because real net worth is harder and harder to come by and find. We suffer to keep up. “We’re very busy,” argues economist Umair Haque, “ but we’re not better for it.” Fast is the only speed, because everything is a competition. Beat the other guy and prove your worth. Beat the other guy and have a better life.
The problem is “the problems of youth unemployment, underemployment, marginalization, and inequality are so pervasive globally, more and more economists are beginning to point to a lost generation,” argues Haque. “Our institutions are failing. They’re failing us, failing the challenge of igniting real, lasting human prosperity. If institutions are just instruments to fulfill social contracts, then ours are shattering because the social contracts at their hearts have fractured.”
As a generation, we’re not equipped for such wicked problems. We were trained in schools for corporate factory jobs, not for learning and discovery, not for testing and experimentation. And while almost certainly one-hundred percent of us buy into the idea that knowledge is power, that education is key not only to our own advancement, but the advancement of the human race, almost all of us stop that education after twenty or so years.
No one learns on the job anymore; the word “apprentice,” exists solely as a joke on primetime television. Every young woman wants a mentor, but few find anyone willing. Today’s employer wants the high-performer, fully formed. Companies don’t teach, that’s not the agreement. The agreement is you provide value for salary and benefits. But as people who routinely quit their jobs at Google or Booz Allen in search for something more will tell you, that’s not enough.
Mostly because what companies see as value isn’t connected to any larger sort of purpose or meaning. The purpose is to maximize shareholder profits, in most cases, and most of us intuitively know, even if we don’t study economics and or aren’t aware of the large inequalities of the system, that a purpose based on profits and profits alone is not enough. “Be the best!” is inherently just an axiom of “Beat the other guy.” And beating the other guy has nothing to do with maximizing human potential. It’s just about winning, and winning alone.
While writing Passion & Purpose, author Daniel Gulati says he “met dozens of recent graduates who, rather than applying their newly-acquired knowledge to solve important problems, had prematurely opted to extract value for themselves. Said one young executive: ‘I had big ideas when I started, but now it’s all about getting promoted to partner.’ Said another: ‘I know I’m just pushing paper. But I like getting paid six figures for working nine-to-five and ordering room service at fancy hotels.’”
We optimize for short-term gain, rather than extraordinary, difficult, heart-wrenching change that will solve social problems, impact the planet and advance the human race. “So you made a profit. Yawn,” says Haque. “Did you actually have an impact?”