How can a college student, who would be a sympathetic reader of this publication, plan a career that would be both personally fulfilling and socially responsible? What follows are two attempts to answer this question, drawn from my correspondence with two students, and my own reflections on my previous career. Clearly, no pair of “answers” can fit every case, but some of what follows may be of wider use to students. Perhaps, after reading this, you can suggest better strategies. I have edited actual letters, in the interests of clarity and privacy.
I am twenty years old and go to the University of C, studying for a degree in business and technology. With all that is happening around me, I am no longer sure what I aspire to be. I wish to help bring the change to this world that will lead to [the social and political policies this publication advocates]. I was considering trying to become a technician in some field, but am unsure of what. I know that most politicians cannot get things done simply because they are not trained to do so; and am asking for your guidance as to where I should point myself. I’m a bilingual college student who works as a bank teller, and quite frankly, the more I learn about banking the less I want to work in it; the more I learn about the monetarism we are a part of, the more I want to change it. It’s terrifying, when I ask some of my peers what they know of our government, or how our money system works, or about world affairs. I usually find an overwhelming ignorance, or just lack of interest because they don’t think they are part of the global community. In fact most people my age could care less about what goes on outside this country or how this government handles public affairs. They are usually just interested in pop culture, or where the next party will be, or who has the most impressive weed. I am disdainful of most of the people in my generation, who are absolutely clueless of what the world is really like. I have a different perspective since I come from a different country and I have traveled quite a bit. But, I do not know what I should do. I am lost and in need of guidance, or another person’s perspective. Would you reply in a sincere and honest way to this question? Is there any hope for change and what can I do to be a part of it?
The best thing you can do for society is to become good at what you love doing most. Naturally, I am thinking about legal and humane applications of your developed skills. Each of us has some activity that we are naturally drawn to, that excites us, that we can feel passionate about, and that would give our lives meaning even if we had to live in poverty and obscurity to engage in it. For some, it is music, perhaps singing or composing — think of Mozart and Maria Callas. For others it can be mathematics or scientific or nature studies — think of Charles Darwin or Einstein. For others it can be craftsmanship by hand, like potters and calligraphers honored by Chinese and Japanese tradition. For others it might be writing, of many varieties. The point is that you must first determine what it is that you REALLY want to do with your mind and hands, in the day-to-day, regardless of whatever circumstances might exist in the world outside. Find your avocation.
The next step is to decide what type and quantity of education you need — and are willing to put up with — in order to develop your avocation. Simply put, if you love doing it, you will be willing to put up with the work needed to learn how to do it well. This is the “monastery” and “apprenticeship” stage of a consciously self-directed life. This is the period where artists and musicians wait on tables to earn the money needed to pay those exacting and expensive teachers, and for the art supplies and/or gigs they need to hone their art. This could be on-the-job training, and it could be graduate school in the Ivy League. The point is, get the education you need to hone the skills for practicing the mechanics of YOUR passion.
Eventually you “finish school” and have to make it on your own, hopefully on the basis of being paid for practicing your craft. Perhaps your passion is writing, specifically in the field of history, but you find yourself employed in a bank or insurance office because you have to support a family and because the employer finds your ability to write sufficiently applicable to preparing financial reports and business documents. You would much rather be a columnist at a big city newspaper, but you just can’t write as fast and as good — within the confines of the paper’s orthodoxy — as the people they already have. Your challenge is twofold:
1, how to ensure the support of the family (which might be minimally yourself), and
2, how to apply the skills of your passion (your avocation) to the betterment of society?
This is such a grand challenge, that most people can’t do it.
First step, be forgiving of yourself. It is not possible for one individual to take on the problems of the world, to feel responsibility for all the ills and misery around you. This is too much, it crushes the individual. Second step is to not give up, to develop your understanding of the world and society around you, so you can perhaps come to see opportunities where you could contribute your skills (your passions) and they would find a welcome, and possibly even reward you monetarily, so as to help with part 1 of your career challenge.
Beyond this point, it is simply effort and refinement.
So, can you solve world hunger by becoming an ace potter in some country hamlet? No, but you might develop into a good teacher of young children working with clay, of adults regaining use of hands and minds after strokes, or you might devise some cost-effective containment devices or strategies for people in poor rural communities who have to make their own items — and clay is a natural. My point is that if you actively think about what human needs exist and how you could apply what you know to them — at some level even a very local and personal one — that you will increase the portion of your working energy that goes into bettering society, instead of just being a mindless “consumer” whose total working life is gobbled up to keep running some capitalist, socially-parasitic system.
The better you are at what you do, the more likely you will be able to apply your skills at a higher level, and to affect more people.
So much for generalities.
It sounds as if you have some economics knowledge. If so, and it interests you, there is always a need for “experts” in development who work to devise methods for poor and peasant communities to improve their economies in sustainable ways, and to keep their independence from foreign multi-nationals (you know, “globalization”). This is not easy at all, and the need is great. Naturally, well-trained economists usually prefer getting the big bucks working for banks and big financial firms, which aim to exploit those peasants (along with everybody else). If one could work in such a setting and make big bucks by funneling investors into ethical portfolios, and then also use your own fat commissions ethically, and/or to fund social improvement projects of your own, then you would be applying MBA skills in a very worthy way.
Look into the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UNICEF for descriptions of economics applied to improve rural/poor/3rd world societies. I have read reports about the energy needs of the world’s poor, a significant problem that cries out for economists with talent, and an interest in simple energy technology (for more, http://www.idiom.com/~garcia/EFHD_01.htm).
If you add a facility with languages (being multi-lingual) to any set of skills, then you become much more effective.
Given the economic circumstances today (impending depression) you can easily see that teachers, advisors and advocates who show people how to get out of debt, stay out of debt, and ultimately produce and trade for what they need without having to go through corporations at all — for food, water, energy, light, heat, furnishings — would be a boon to poor people, which is to say most people. Could you devise such schemes of personal financial independence for the non-rich?
I’m working on ideas for generating electricity directly from sunlight, using a “small” machine, so individuals could reduce or even eliminate their dependence on utility companies (perhaps foreign, and perhaps exploitative) and power lines (so, for remote villages), if they could also simplify their lives sufficiently to conserve a good amount of power. Physically, it is possible. Practical?, convenient?, reliable?, still working on it. Maybe I’ll arrive at a breakthrough someday, and maybe nothing will ever come of it, but I’m trying, and I’m using my passion for math and physics. How successful am I at changing the world? I’m forgiving on myself on that point, but I’m trying, and I’m using my passions (which include writing) for much of my time.
Read the book Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl (easily found). It is short, and shows how we humans need meaning in our lives. When we are engaged in what gives us meaning, we can literally live through anything. The philosopher-folklorist Joseph Campbell (book: The Hero With A Thousand Faces) also talks on this theme.
I can’t tell you what to do or study until you identify what gives your life meaning. What is it you feel you are driven to do. Once you know that, nurture it, develop it. And then try, ethically, to apply it in the world. Measure success by the level of satisfaction in your life, NOT by externalities like money, titles, attention and status. Develop a sense of self-respect that can’t be bought (and beware, because it will “cost” you in those externalities). The only success is to lead a life of meaning, even if invisible to others; the only failure is to never experience the thrill of what you were meant to do.
Hello! My name is M. Right now, I’m an undergraduate physics student at O University. I’m finishing up my senior year and I’m getting very excited about continuing my education in graduate school and eventually getting my Ph.D. The plan is to pursue my research in plasma physics. However, I’m always finding conflicts with these ambitions. I chose this path because I really do love physics and math and wanted to do something with my life that was beneficial to the earth. I chose plasma physics as a way to research fusion energy, thinking that this would be the cleanest possible goal for the planet. But whenever I speak about this to other “radical” friends, they kind of look down on me. I’ve gotten a lot of criticism from friends and acquaintances. I read [this publication and MG, Jr. articles], and love seeing a physicist that shares all of my political ideas and feelings about the world. So as a physicist and thinker, is the path I’ve chosen a bad one? I know that you may not be able to make that call for me, nor am I expecting you to plan my life. I just wanted to ask for your opinion.
You put your question very clearly and succinctly. Unfortunately, I do not see how to give as clear or concise an answer.
It’s life that matters, nothing but life — the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself, at all.
Inventors and geniuses have almost always been looked on as no better than fools at the beginning of their career, and very frequently at the end of it also.
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot (1868)
On April 22, 1970, I attended a lecture in my undergraduate physics class, on nuclear fission and fusion. Professor Walter Whales became quite engrossed in his presentation, which became an hour-long tutorial on the design of a fission bomb. It was fascinating. To see how all the individual textbook phenomena fit together in an intricate, interrelated fashion to produce one awesome effect was just marvelous, a private viewing behind nature’s curtains at a vast panorama of hidden depth, an initiation. At the end of his lecture, Professor Whales was struck by an amusing realization and, with a smile and all his chalk-board spherical shell diagrams behind him, said “What a thing to be talking about on Earth Day!” I left the lecture hall that day, walking onto the sunny spring-day college green, crowded with students, mini-skirts, Beatles music, and the celebratory atmosphere of the first Earth Day, and realized my course in life: to study plasma physics to prepare myself to be in the first generation of chief-engineers of the fusion energy plants that would just begin coming into service within 15 years, by 1985. Energy for the people, a revolution in freedom for the world, perhaps even the beginning of the end of world poverty, hunger, even war. This was one of the most ecstatic days in my life, even my girlfriend was sweet to me. Joseph Campbell called such times “peak experiences,” when you are at your best, and the world smiles on you.
Thirty-eight years later, I am the same person with the same basic dreams, only by now all the hidden assumptions I had as a 20-year-old have been uncovered, and most of them discarded as erroneous. Today, my belief is that simple solar technology, which can be fabricated locally in the 3rd World without anything “special,” except for a little knowledge encapsulated in a simple blueprint or a working model as guides, is how the greatest degree of energy independence is to be provided. I hope to put more time and energy into this project this new year, because it moves me. What I have learned from physics is how to marvel more deeply at the wonder of nature, at the genius of the evolved interrelatedness we are enmeshed in. Still, if some university or college, or even an eccentric millionaire were to pay me to work at solving physics problems involving fluids, electromagnetic effects and plasmas, and just for the sake of the art, I would jump at the chance. I was lucky enough to spend years of my time engrossed in such study — and meditation — and earn my daily bread doing so: ivory tower, rent-free. But, I’m considered a has-been now, my methods and my focus seen as passé.
And, I am passé because I rebel at the likely purposes to which my thoughts of plasma physics would be put to, were I paid to generate such thoughts; I rebel at any suggestion I channel my thinking to the projects most employers of physicists would have; and I rebel against the popular methods of career advancement tolerated among professionals of all types. Finally, I rebel against the realization that I can never be a teacher, because I cannot cater to an audience impatient to have their tickets punched so they can move on in their career trips, and impatient if I do not supply classroom entertainment to relieve their instantly available boredom. I’m a grumpy old man before my time. What I do have, in exchange for being cast off from my former professional associations and their rich resources, is the freedom to pursue my interests without the restraint of fearing to appear foolish, or worrying about getting published — accepted, included. Even if they never reach anyone else, my ideas can fill me with excitement, insight and wonder. THIS is what you want to ensure you experience, at least a few times, when you choose to immerse yourself in a science life. Remember this for those times your career is in a slump; because there are many careerists in science but far fewer real intellectual successes.
It is impossible for any single human being to resolve the conflicts of the world within the limited scope of their personal life. If you try to arrange your activity to have a “zero carbon footprint,” to be “socially responsible,” even 100% certified organic ahimsa harmless pure-loving good, you will go insane. If you are a born American citizen, you are de facto already guilty of the original sin of being a biological unit in the Earth-chewing genocidal fascism of American capitalism. It is unreasonable to expect any rational human being to assume such guilt and forsake all to become a naked sadhu in India. The rational course is to recognize advantages the luck of birth has bestowed on you and to use them to help you develop yourself to some personally rewarding and socially useful purpose. Consider the Parable of the Talents (if you have read New Testament stories). The mere fact of your birth bestows on you the right to seek personal fulfillment, and the right to be creative. If you excel in the pursuit of your deepest intellectual interests, your quest for beauty, and in the understanding of nature, you will have made the best use of your life-energy that world society could ask for. If pondering physics problems is where your heart lies, and you would be willing to wash up as a middle-aged derelict with a sufficient income for simple survival till bucket-kicking, so you can ponder these wonders for several decades during a professional career, then why ask what else? You can easily choose a “safe” course, or something that is more easily bullshitted as “goody-two-shoes” to all those unimportant people you feel necessary to keep up appearances for, and have a boring life and even still end up a professional derelict. Don’t compromise on what gives you fulfillment. If you know what it is do it, if you are uncertain what it is, find it and then stick with it. Life is short, and we all die, the only victory over death is to reach it having experienced what you were uniquely meant to do and enjoy. “Work out your salvation with diligence,” as Buddha said with his dying breath.
With your physics passion aflame, you go out with a freshly minted Ph.D. (assuming all the politics and bullshit of grad school didn’t kill your resolve with disgust), and what do you find? The people who pay for physics want bombs, guns, and money (these latter are usually advertised as educational institutions). There may be a few other outlets for physics talent, but by and large they all connect back to US government funding, and this is not charitable — whatever they say (even “pure physics” and “educational” funding is for maintaining a “pipeline” of new-young physics talent for the many military-oriented jobs). Physicists are paid to codify natural phenomena to the benefit of control-oriented agencies. Today, this means the product is some computer code that simulates physical effects or controls technological mechanisms that interact with the natural world, or other technological systems, for the purposes of monitoring and control. The actual physics minutia you would have to ponder may be very interesting, like gun barrel erosion, or shock wave propagation through varied media, or the hypervelocity dynamics of shaped charges, but the ultimate purposes of the exploration can be very inhumane. You become (or remain) a human being, instead of being just a physics expert automaton, when you take some responsibility for the purposes of the work. This is the hardest part of sustaining a career. If you ignore your portion of responsibility — and this is the overwhelmingly popular choice among professional scientists — then you reduce yourself to a tool and a hypocrite. A tool being a hypocrite is only possible because in being an employed Ph.D., a professional scientist, the tool has proved it has the cranial capacity to know that such a demand of social responsibility exists for it. I dwell on this point because most physicists I knew were in denial about their hypocrisy.
Pretty grim choice, huh? On the one hand seek your bliss in a physics career, and on the other the inescapability of being an agent of the Empire. The only out I know is what the ancient Chinese called “human heartedness,” a recognition of the realities of daily life and the limits of any human’s powers. You have a right to make a decent living, to be able to support a family, to participate in the society of your times. It is not possible to reconcile all the contradictions (between personal life and world politics) crossing through your life, with the exception of a few charmed individuals (and it is best to assume you are not one of them). Of necessity, the feeding of your family and the maintenance of your sanity cannot be done to the satisfaction of everybody. You follow the most honorable course when you recognize these unavoidable disparities, and you conduct yourself mindful of the ideals, compassionate to the people you know (like your family, who will be directly affected by your actions), and honest about your stances. So, you balance your personal “take” from the world and your “give” to the world, in managing your career and in supporting whatever it is you choose to support with it. Who can really judge you but yourself? As long as you are honest with yourself, you will know if you have been a Machiavellian careerist bullshitter, or a person doing their best to honor their creativity while striking an ethical and compassionate balance in an amoral world, dominated by cruel and selfish attitudes.
I cannot know what the specifics of your career should be. Perhaps you’ll be the next Einstein, and we would be grateful that US military money sustained you, so we could receive your wisdom and value it down the ages. Perhaps, you’ll be a physics teacher, cranking out generations of recruits for the imperial forces, and having a brief period of time to influence each student, perhaps to become more intellectually honest, perhaps to become more rational, perhaps to just get homework done on time, and this can add to the overall good to society. And, perhaps you’ll just be another troglodyte in the imperial armaments industries, and the most social good anyone will see from you will be that you kept yourself off the streets, supported a family even if only a bunch of strays saved from the city pound, and lent your company to some well-intentioned groups and artistic circles. If you live mindfully (a concept written about by Thich Nhat Hanh), then it is inevitable that your big physicist brain will question the ongoing phenomena of your life and times, and you can devise many opportunities for you to “do better” in terms of your own character, and as karma-trailing actions for our world.
The bottom line: it is your life to live, and your life to choose how to live. Honor your creativity and do what brings ecstasy and peace to your consciousness. Do this with enthusiasm, and mindfully. Be aware of your karma, the impact of your actions on others, and be honest about taking justifiable responsibility. Be good to yourself, remember you are only human, not Prometheus, so don’t shoulder all the problems of the world. We humans are never perfect, we are just monkeys with bigger brains. So monkey around, do your best, and after all is said and done the best judgment you can possibly get is: you were never perfect, just a monkey with a bigger brain, monkeying around most happily.
Give my regards to the future.