When I was a kid, I asked why the government didn’t just print enough money to make everyone rich. I got some answer about how that would reduce the worth of money itself, but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. So I spent some time thinking about it and realized the answer depended on understanding what the economy itself was.
As a society, we all need a whole bunch of things. We need people to make food, people to build housing, people to treat us when we are sick, people to keep us safe, people to teach us things, people to produce entertainment, people to manage this whole system, and so on.
Capitalism then was a somewhat fair and useful system to get us all of this. Anyone is free to take on any of these roles, and do it as well or as poorly as they want. But the better job you do, the more you will be rewarded, as more people will come to you for your goods or services. Similarly, if a lot of people can do what you do, you will be rewarded less than if only a few people can do what you do. And then we have the concept of money to greatly simplify all these interpersonal transactions.
This made me realize roughly what my role in life needed to be. I was in school at this time so I was in a training phase. Society was basically giving me “a free 18 years”: until I was 18, no one expected me to contribute anything. I was getting good food, clean water, shelter, security, and loads of entertainment without having to lift a finger. All the adults were taking 40 or so hours of their time every week to provide me with all of this.
So my role when I became an adult was to figure out how I wanted to contribute back. My choice wasn’t fixed: I could always change it. But I had to contribute somehow. And if I felt lazy and decided not to, society would say okay and give me enough to keep me alive but not enough to give me a great standard of living (i.e. welfare) – after all, I needed to be motivated somehow.
The answer to why the government doesn’t just print more money then became obvious: it just wasn’t an act that allowed people to produce more value to each other.
All of this is fairly straightforward. And yet few seem to ever think along these lines.
When we’re in school, the things we’re told most often are “Do what you love” and “Follow your passions”. I don’t want to admonish this advice per se – if you’re trying to decide how to contribute, finding something enjoyable is best both for yourself and for those who benefit from your profession.
But just because you love doing something doesn’t mean it’s useful to anyone. You could love painting, but there could be more than enough painters already, most of them better than you will ever be. Here, at least, the market self-corrects – unable to compete, you’ll find something else to do. But you could also love something like day trading, where you just buy and sell stocks within the same trading day, making a profit for yourself by timing small rises and dips in the market. Here, you’re not providing value to anyone’s lives, and yet you can make a fine living for yourself.
Finding a career that can make you the most money is the other popular sentiment. In an ideal economic system where salary correlates perfectly with positive impact to society, this would be fine. But this is obviously not the case and no one pretends it is. Lobbyists, lawyers, tax accountants, executives – it’s obviously wrong to say that all of these highly paid people don’t have positive impact, yet most wouldn’t argue that a lot of these highly paid people have large negative impacts on society and the world.
No one ever told me in school to look for where I could contribute to the world the most. In fact, when I Google “Why should I get a job?”, I see page after page listing reason after reason, none of which acknowledge “Well, maybe you should be finding your place to give back to the society that is giving you so much.”
On one hand I get it – most people don’t have the luxury of choosing these things, they just take whatever jobs they can get to survive, and they shouldn’t feel the slightest bit bad about it. But the fact that we don’t talk about this as the actual purpose of jobs is worrisome and leads to a whole lot of confusion.
One popular talking point in politics is job creation. It’s one of the few things regarded as a good thing on both sides of the aisle because in capitalism a strong economy is one where everyone is working and buying.
This really is a failure of capitalism though to model the ideal situation. In an ideal economic system, jobs exist purely for the sake of solving problems and as we solve more of our problems, jobs will disappear and everyone can work less while simultaneously increasing our standard of living. Clearly we haven’t figured out how to do that so we’re stuck with capitalism and now “more problems to solve” is uncontested as a positive.
But I do wish more people (and not just anti-capitalists) would acknowledge this.
When job opportunities disappear in some sector, people fight ferociously to get them back. But another way to think this is there isn’t much to contribute in this sector anymore, and people should be trying to find one that can actually make use of their skills and talents.
People pride themselves in their ability to work hard, again giving less consideration to what that work actually produces. The phrase “Earning your keep” has more to do with working hard and working well than about actually contributing positively. Being exhausted is somewhat considered a status symbol. I don’t know any criminals personally but a lot of criminals in crime shows and movies praise the virtues of hard work, despite the fact that their hard work brings down the fabric of society instead of elevating it.
People also take great pride in the money they make without caring about the damage they do to the world – whether it’s profiting off ruining the economy, the environment, or other people’s lives. Part of the reason is simple greed for materialism: the luxury life is nice after all. But the other part is that our society prizes wealth with considerably less consideration for what means were used to acquire that wealth.
“I’m just doing my job” is often considered a valid excuse for bad behavior. Same with “I do what I can to put food on the table.”
The first popular piece of reading I’ve seen really talk about this is Cracked’s 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person, which is one of their most popular articles ever and many seem to view it as speaking some mind-blowing truths.
Then there’s 80,000 Hours which goes in the complete opposite direction of all other career advice I’ve encountered and focusses on optimizing your career almost purely for positive impact onto the world. I have complete admiration for people that have this as their focus, but I think it’s so diametrically opposed to the current mode of thinking that most people would just roll their eyes at it.
But we should reshape our cultural attitude towards work. It’s not just about making a living for yourself, it’s about doing your part to help everyone else thrive.
The Japanese have a concept called Ikigai, which means “A reason for being”. It says there’s four things to aim for in a job: enjoying it, being good at it, being able to get paid for it, and giving the world what it needs.
Now we can see what traditional North American career advice lacks. “Follow your passions” makes it seem like what you love is all that matters. “Earning your keep” makes it seem like what you can be paid for is all that matters. “You’re good at X, why not do X?” makes it seem like what you’re good at is what matters. All these are starting points but the fourth circle there of “What the world needs” is just as important, and is just as good a starting point.
And it’s not just about doing it for the world for morality’s sake. Doing something useful and knowing you are making a positive impact feels different. Living selfishly to satisfy yourself feels hollow; trying to make the world even a little better feels meaningful.
I want to re-iterate that for a good portion of the population, the options they need are simply not there. No one who’s trying to make ends meet should read this post and feel the least bit bad about it – you can’t help the world if you’re struggling to survive, and there’s no shame in struggling to survive if that’s the situation you’re in today.
But if you’re lucky enough to be a person who has options, consider that your job isn’t just a way to give yourself and your family a nice standard of living. Consider what kinds of jobs would make you feel more complete and help others out. Consider not just asking what the economy can do for you but what you can do for the economy.