The idea of “getting ahead” is one that is touted as the triumph of our modern societies and economies. We are no longer trying to advance our efforts for the glorious emperor, queen, or God. Instead, we’re told that if we work hard and push ourselves, that we will “come out ahead” and therefore be happy. We’re also told, in the very same framework, that if everyone works hard and makes an effort to get ahead, then everyone will benefit because society as a whole will advance. There is an admission that the framework causes there to be some winners and some losers, and we do have social safety nets for those who take risks to get ahead but can’t. We even have social safety nets for those who don’t really try at all. I won’t get into the politics of those policies (I’ll just tell you that I lean towards supporting liberal policies and safety nets). What I want to talk about is about the deeper implications of the idea of getting ahead that aren’t really spoken about.
The idea of getting ahead is baked into us from the start. Parents drive their kids to soccer games starting at a very young age, and they cheer them on while reinforcing the ideas of sportsmanship, teamwork, handling failure, and of course, winning. Middle school and high school sports ensue. For those less athletic and more artistic, maybe it’s band competitions instead. For those more academic, maybe it’s scholastic bowl or math competitions (guilty). For the more rebellious types, maybe it’s the local Battle of the Bands or a video game competition. I don’t think many people consider the implications of the psychological effects during these formative years because competition is so entrenched and we take it all the way to the grave (or at least to retirement). It’s simply mixed into our nature.
But I believe the molding done on people with competition throughout their entire life is worth looking at closer. We take the competitive nature we’ve developed into college (some of us, not all) and then into the workplace. That’s when I think things get interesting, especially more recently. Historically, most people are just trying to make ends meet, but increasingly, people are looking for a level of fulfillment from their work that I don’t think the competitive nurturing really set us up for. Helping the planet or fellow mankind is something that our generation is more and more interested in. Having the desire to work in those areas is no longer considered hippy shit and is actually gaining significant respect. However, working on those kinds of things is hardly ever more profitable than doing something less fulfilling like working in the financial sector. So what do we do with this? We’re so used to competing with others, competition lends itself to capitalism, and capitalism is based around the idea that earning money allows one to have the freedom to do what they want. Taking this, I’ve seen many peers take a common approach: leave college and go where the money is regardless of where it is (the fossil fuel production industry, for example). After a few years of having saved up and/or paid off college loans, they scramble for fulfillment and move jobs at best. At worst, they become overly comfortable, realize life has kicked in (marriage, kids, a house with a mortgage), or given the speed at which the economy is constantly changing, have already outdated their relevance in something they do want to actually work on.
So some of us get ahead financially and perhaps stagnate. Some people are lucky enough to not fall into this trap and have a whole other set of challenges. Those people are constantly pushing themselves to achieve more because there are just enough other people doing the same.
With the prevalent nature of information and embellished stories of Silicon Valley successes, we look up to our heroes in hopes of being them one day. All the while, we want to work on a valiant cause while making lots of money. I don’t know about you, but this balancing act has and continues to cause me a lot of anxiety. We want all of these things from ourselves while knowing that getting all of these things quickly and so early in one’s career is very difficult. Meanwhile, we never stop to question our drive and why working hard and “getting ahead” is the end all solution to get what we want. Maybe “getting ahead” isn’t what we actually want to do. Perhaps compassion and a more fundamental level of putting one’s efforts towards getting everyone ahead is a better solution. I don’t think it’s really possible to uproot our individualistic and competitive nature because it’s so embedded in us. What I think is possible, though, is consistent reflection on what you’re doing and how that is helping you (or preventing you) to get what you want from yourself. Take embellished success stories with a grain of salt. Let yourself be the master of your own success. Help those around you to reach their potential. And if we do that, perhaps we will all come out ahead in a completely new way.
This post is part of a series of posts that I am writing while commuting on the train in the morning.