In school, we spend a lot of time feeling really confused. When I was there, it was definitely the case that people were aiming for something -- that we were supposed to be aiming for something -- but what was it? In high school, presumably we were supposed to be aiming for good grades, so that we could get into good universities. In college, it seemed like we were supposed to be aiming for good grades, so that we could get good jobs upon graduation. But why?
The thing about the school system is that it presupposes what we value. By going to school, we are implicitly buying into the idea that the thing that matters the most to us is a financially comfortable life. After all, that’s what school ultimately tries to prepare us for, though it doesn’t always succeed: jobs that give us the money to lead decent lives, in return for some contribution to society.
As hackademics, however, we know that the reality is that schools don’t always deliver on the promise of a comfortable life; the skills you learn in school aren’t directly aligned with the skills you need to succeed at work. They can help you become a critical thinker, but they don’t always give you the raw skills you need to succeed. But let’s say, for whatever reason, that your experience in school does allow you to do well at work… Is a comfortable life what you are aiming for? Probably. But you’re probably hoping for other things too, like power or connection or impact. When thinking about whether or not you want to go to school, it helps to know (a) what you want out of life, (b) what school is getting you, and (c) whether school is the best path to getting what you want.
So what should we be aiming for? Here are a few things that people typically aim for, and why or why not you should aim for them:
Obviously, money is incredibly useful. Money allows you to have things and experiences that you desire, and money prevents you from becoming reliant on others, and falling into a cycle of poverty and homelessness. But in life, should you be aiming exclusively for money? If you’re making above $75,000, probably not. Researchers at Princeton University say that while making less than $75,000 a year might indeed negatively affect how happy you are, after you reach that threshold, making more money won’t make you any happier. (Of course, money can be instrumentally useful -- more on this in the “Impact” section below.)
Looking good matters. This can be hard to admit, especially since there are so many social norms dictating the value of being humble and of not trying to seek prestige and status. But it’s a fact of human life that we care about how we look to other people, and there is real value in doing so. Gaining status can open doors. Does that mean that you should primarily aim to look good? Probably not. While looking good to a certain extent feels good and is very useful, after a certain point just aiming for status can lead to a life that feels empty. Former Instagram star Essena O’Neill recently posted an excellent video on this. (Again, status that translates into power is still instrumentally useful -- more on this under “Impact.”)
One of the things that everyone is aiming for is connection. People want to feel connected with their families, with their romantic partners, with their friends, and more. Notably, school doesn’t teach you the skills you need to get the kinds of connection that you may want. Notably, money and status don’t directly translate into connection, either. Unlike money and status, connection is not just instrumentally useful; it is intrinsically so. Connection, specifically in having deep and loving relationships, is really important, but you have to aim directly at it. The Book of Life has some excellent resources on getting the kinds of connection that we need.
When I was 15, I realized that I couldn’t spend my life just aiming for money and status -- I knew that it wouldn’t be satisfying. I wanted to make a contribution to society. But how? There are many paths to making an impact in the world, and it was perplexing trying to figure out which one to take. It was especially perplexing because it looked like aiming to make a positive impact on 50 vs. 500 vs. 5,000 people’s lives didn’t necessarily mean that I would have to spend much more time. Rather, it just meant that I would be doing radically different things during my time. Aiming to make an impact is a great thing, but it can be difficult to figure out what to do. Luckily, the Effective Altruist movement is a community that can help you navigate this space.
- A Nice Life
On my 18th birthday, I tried giving away most of what I owned in a park in San Francisco (I thought it was super cool to be minimalist back then). It failed, and I was so relieved. Trying to give all of my stuff away made me realize how much I like having nice things. And in general, I want a nice life. I want a nice home, and I want to have the affordance to eat at nice restaurants, and I want the comfortable life that going to school often gets people -- I just don’t think school is the only way to get it. Also, having a nice life doesn’t require that you have very much money or status. Of the many things that I want, a nice life is one of them. I think there’s a lot of value in intensely burying yourself in causes and in your work and in trying to make an impact. But I’m not a martyr, and you don’t have to be either.
- 10 Reasons Not to Go to College (At Least Not Yet)