Last month J. Money published a post on Budgets Are $exy that made me think a LOT. I wrote a longish comment at the time, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to make it into a full post.
So here we go. I’d be interested to know if you can relate to any of this.
J.’s post was called “Millennials Don’t Want to be Millionaires?” It was written in response to a survey finding that “Two thirds (67%) [of millennials] said they would rather have a steady job with a modest income than become a millionaire with a chance of going broke within a few years.” As J. points out in the post, these survey results could just mean that millennials really value job security and a steady income—which is totally understandable.
But the question sparked another train of thought for me. Although I may be sliiiiightly too old to qualify as a millennial, I can say with a pretty high degree of certainty that if that same question had been posed to me when I was 21 or 24 or even 27, I would have (rather smugly) replied that I would never want to be a millionaire.
Let me try to explain why.
Last month I wrote a post about how in many movies and books, the rich characters are the bad guys and the poor characters are the good guys. In other words, a lot of us grew up surrounded by the concept that:
Rich = bad
Poor = good
But in addition to that, I think there’s another belief floating around out there—or at least it was floating around in my head when I was 21—about the difference between people who are actively trying to make money and people who aren’t particularly trying to. That difference, or so I felt at the time, was:
Trying to make money = shallow
Not really caring whether you make money or not = deep
There are several problems with this concept, first and foremost that it doesn’t distinguish between trying to make enough money to support yourself and your family, and trying to become rich enough to buy a private island. But it was kind of the way I thought about things when I was in college, so let’s go with it for a minute.
My key assumption here—I think—was that if someone cared about making money, they must not care very much about other things like art and love and ideas, which I guess would mean that they were “shallow”. And being shallow was something I desperately wanted to avoid. When I was in high school and college I wanted to be a lot of things: smart, pretty, thin, popular, athletic. But above all, I wanted to not be shallow. For me (and for many young, idealistic people), shallowness was the worst possible trait.
Interestingly, I think this aversion to shallowness had an impact on how I evaluated possible college majors at the time. In my 21-year-old brain, possible majors were basically divided into two groups, like this:
Majors for people who want to make a lot of money
Majors for people who don’t care if they make money or not
Not every major fits easily into one of these lists (biology? political science?). But the point is that when I was in college I really thought that a person’s major revealed something about their core values, their identity—and I would venture to say that I was not alone in this thinking.
I chose to major in English, for many reasons but in part because I liked what I hoped it said about me, that is, that I valued literature and ideas over being able to have expensive clothes or a big house or a yacht. I remember feeling a bit superior to my classmates who were majoring in finance or economics, thinking, ha, you people are just out to get rich; I’m better than that.
Before I go any further, I want to recognize that the fact that I would even consider majoring in English, a discipline with no obvious career path attached to it, probably says something about my level of privilege. I don’t want to make assumptions about other people, but I suspect that if I had come from a lower-income background, I might have been less likely to consider majoring in anything in the humanities and more likely to choose a major with some sort of clear career trajectory. (Here’s a brief write-up of an interesting study that explores this question in a bit more depth.)
But the fact is that I did major in English. And don’t get me wrong: I liked it! I didn’t have the goal of becoming a published writer or an English professor, but I liked my courses, I liked writing essays, I liked poetry, I liked British literature, and I liked analyzing texts. So in terms of my interests, English was a perfectly appropriate major for me.
However, what I find interesting in retrospect is that literature and writing weren’t my only interests. On the contrary, I also really liked math and logic and, I believe, could have been equally as engaged studying finance or economics or something of that nature. But I never considered majoring in finance or economics, largely because I wasn’t sure I liked what those majors might imply about me and my values.
What I didn’t understand at the time is that things aren’t nearly that simple. It’s entirely possible to be an idealistic, deep-thinking finance major who also loves poetry and wants to change the world, just as it is entirely possible to be a self-absorbed English major whose main goal in life is to become rich and famous. Identity and values are important, but it’s unlikely that all of a person’s values could be perfectly encapsulated by a single college major or career.
I want to emphasize that I got a lot out of majoring in English. I think the humanities are hugely important, and I don’t regret my choice. But it’s always interesting to try to understand our motivations and insecurities and assumptions a little better, isn’t it? (For more thoughts on this whole topic, see The Myth of the Yacht—this post is really just an extension of that piece, which was the first thing I ever wrote for this blog.)
And finally, a note to my 21-year-old self: there are actually no shallow people. Everyone is on their own journey. If you think someone seems shallow, it’s only because you can’t see their depth from where you’re currently standing.
What do you think? Have you ever experienced this deep/shallow motivation at all when choosing a college major or applying for jobs? Or did you go a different route than me and pick a more obviously practical major or lucrative career path? Let me know in the comments!