First off, Robin Hanson riffs off of Steve Jobs’ 2005 convocation speech, in which he urges graduands to “never settle”:
- “Never settle” is a brag (Overcoming Bias)
[D]oing what you love, and never settling until you find it, is a costly signal of your career prospects. Since following this advice tends to go better for really capable people, they pay a smaller price for following it. So endorsing this strategy in a way that makes you more likely to follow it is a way to signal your status.
Will Wilkinson concurs:
- Did Steve Jobs give bad advice? (Big Think)
“Find what you love and never settle for less” is an excellent recipe for frustration and poverty. “Reconcile yourself to the limits of your talent and temperament and find the most satisfactory compromise between what you love to do and what you need to do feed your children” is rather less stirring, but it’s much better advice.
Wilkinson brings up his art degree in support of Hanson’s thesis, but there’s something else going on here. When Jobs said “Never settle”, he said it as a wildly successful entrepreneur. Hanson argues that he was signaling status: “I followed a very risky path, and I came out miles ahead. Yes, folks, I really am just that good, and if you take my advice — and, incidentally, if you’re as good as I am — you might come out miles ahead as well.” It just so happens, though, that when Steve Jobs did what he loved he rode the crest of the microcomputer revolution — twice. When Will earned his BFA, he wasn’t bragging about status he’d already acquired: if anything (simplifying outrageously), he was signaling his confidence that he was a good enough artist that he’d make a living doing what he loved. And lest you think I’m being a condescending dick, I was doing the same, at least in part, when I started my PhD. I thought I was going to be a hot-shit researcher. As it happens, I’m a pretty good researcher — I passed my defence, after all — but not so amazing that Division 1 research universities are showering me with tenure-track faculty offers.
The other reason I did a PhD — and, I presume, the other reason why Will did a BFA, and why so many of the Occupy Wherever protesters did enjoyable but unemployable degrees — was because it was fun. I was a middle-class white kid with no debts or dependents; I thought I could afford to go off to grad school and fuck around with linear algebra and differential geometry for the better part of a decade. (As it turns out, I could just barely afford to do so — and we’ll see if that holds up if and when I ever try to retire.) Was I showing off? “I’m so high-status that I can afford to spend years of my life, and throw away an enormous amount of potential income, doing something fun!” Not that I recall. If anything, I was trying to opt out of the “money” status game in favour of the “intellectualism” status game.
Unfortunately, while one can opt out of the “money” status game, it’s a damn sight harder to get rid of one’s food and rent habits. Money has a way of catching up with even the most earnest of anti-materialists, as Megan McArdle points out:
- The 99% (The Atlantic)
Take all the pot shots you want at people who thought that a $100,000 BFA was supposed to guarantee them a great job–beneath the occasionally grating entitlement is the visceral terror of someone in a bad place who doesn’t know what to do. Having found myself in the same place ten years ago, I can’t bring myself to sneer. No matter how inflated your expectations may have been, it is no joke to have your confidence that you can support yourself ripped away, and replaced with the horrifying realization that you don’t really understand what the rules are. Yes, even if you have a nose ring.
This story suggests that “not settling” and doing that BA in Early Medieval Postmodernist Philosophy might not have been signaling status (“Most of my classmates are going to end up working at Starbucks, but I’m going to revolutionize the field and get a named chair at Cambridge!”) or signaling meta-status (“I have so much contempt for money-signaling that I’m committing every inch of my future to academics-signaling”), but rather a misapprehension of “the rules” (“What’s the big deal? I go to college, I get a Bachelor’s degree, travel around Europe for a summer, and then get a job, right?”). That’s not such a different story than that of the steelworker — or middle manager — who gets a job with a big company in the ’70s and expects to have it until he retires, just like his dad. For that matter, it’s not such a different story than that of the French military planner who looks at the well-fortified German trenches around the Somme and decides to build something similar — but bigger — at the Franco-German border. Most of us prepare to fight the last war.
Speaking of the “other 99%” and Occupy Wherever, John Barro does some math and discovers that:
- We are the 99%—even rich people (National Review; mind the dumbworms)
The 99th percentile of Americans, by income, starts with households earning incomes of $593,000. The “We Are the 99 percent” branding puts somebody making $500,000 per year on the oppressed-and-downtrodden side of the wage divide. Indeed, “99 percent” is so expansive a designation that it includes most of the bankers working on Wall Street.
One way to read this is to shake one’s head in awestruck horror and think “Man, income inequality is so bad in this country that even Wall Street bankers are getting left behind!” Another, which I favour, is “Holy fuck, over three million Americans earn six hundred kilobucks a year! That is a damn lot of people!”
Precisely what point that last paragraph signals is left as an exercise for the interested reader.