- Author: Judah
- URL: https://bewrong.substack.com/p/speech-to-undergrads
- Read in: 2022
- You’re in a good position, you should try to fix the world
The ability to do great work? You have more of what’s necessary for that than most other people do. It won’t be enough, but the missing bits are not the things that could be handed to you anyway.
I repeat, you have no obligations. To put it crudely: you owe nothing to nobody. But there is also no limit to the duties that you can assign yourself. Like the venerable Simon Sarris says “everything is your responsibility”. If, and only if, you take them upon you willingly.
- We give advice we wish we’d head
One of the funny things about being human, and getting to live just the one life, is that we end up giving others the advice we wish we’d heard. So I have to remind myself that I do not want you to do what I think you should do. I must remember just how limited my own imagination is. “Every person takes the limits of their own field of vision for the limits of the world." That’s Schopenhauer reminding me that sometimes, I cannot rely my own judgement.
- Avoid little leagues (like college clubs, honors courses, etc.)
One, because they don’t matter, at all. All across the world, thousands of college magazines and “entrepreneurship clubs” could shut down, and nobody would be the poorer for it. At most, it will mean a few crushed egos and the end of some Whatsapp groupchats. Like I said, net positive.
But secondly, because they’re ambition traps, teaching kids that this is as good as it gets. And that they’ll still be treated as a child, no matter how they handle themselves. Toy project and mandatory hand-holding. “University policy lad, no exceptions”. And unfortunately enough, that lesson stays with people for far, far longer than it should.
- What is ambition
Ambition is about giving a shit. It’s about seeing beyond the hills. Beyond what is asked of you. It involves that which Kierkegaard called the “Infinite”, the part of you that yearns to transcend the current order of things. To bring into existence all that doesn’t necessarily exist but could possibly be.
- You’re probably underestimating yourself
Thanks to the paternalism of schools, and the insulating effects of your environment at large, you know next to nothing of the world as it is. Or of what it can be. Perhaps even worse, you underestimate yourself. Yes, that’s a cliché. But I’ve found that growing up is just the process of realizing all the clichés are true. Sue me.
Of course, they’ve already told you that you underestimate yourself, they tell you all the time. With the result that you’re living in the guilt of the you you’re supposed to be. The one you could be if only you applied yourself. But the more impressive version, the “possible-you” is the underestimate.
- The machine
Y’know, they love reminding you that your teens are the time for rebellion. They do it so that you know you’re expected to stop eventually. And most people do stop, as soon as the novelty fades. You grow tired of raging, tired of fighting, maybe even tired of feeling. And that’s when the Machine wins.
"The Machine wants conformity, efficiency, and productivity above all else. It wants you to bend the knee, to sell your soul, to sacrifice all that you hold dear in the name of faster and faster and more and more. It wants you to forget that bad incentives can and should be resisted, that rules are meant to be broken, that at all times you have the right to say fuck this shit, I’m out."
All the really important things change slowly, painfully slowly. So the Machine counts on you burning yourself out quickly. It needs to break your spirit when you’re young and fairly powerless. Leave you thinking that this is, in fact, just a phase. But the truth is that you don’t have to get boring or cynical, though you’ll be forgiven if you occasionally do. The Machine does it’s best to wear us down.
- Succesful rebellion
This is why any successful rebellion needs to be consciously maintained. Carefully planned. Intentionally followed through on. The eager young revolutionary must be replaced by a determined solider. The brash attempts at immediate transformation supplanted by a slow, thoughtful push-back that comes of a firm conviction in the kind of world you want to see.
Listen to people who tell you to embrace foolhardy ventures the same way you would listen to a newly-minted lottery winner. And look at the ones that say those are the only ways to make a difference with pure skepticism.
- People matter
Because I’ve found, despite all my personal cynicism (and there’s a lot of it), that people really do matter. That the things that don’t scale count in ways that transcend estimation, and that the only efforts that go in vain are those which are not sustained. I do not want you as mere excited comrades in the small battles, but as determined allies throughout a long war.
- Beat your averages
The will to actively avoid the averages, to go beyond good enough. That’s all there is to do, y’know? Doing what you can, and then just a little bit better. Do not rely on your neighbor to fill the gap. That’s how we got here in the first place.
So you’ll have to do it yourself, looking directly to the people you find admirable and impressive for inspiration. I promise you, when they started out, most of them were just some guy. They just happened to care very, very much. They cared enough that seeming like an idiot for a decade or so was nothing to be discouraged by.
- Fix your communities
Some of you (lucky bastards!), know exactly what you want to do after this. And I commend you for it. But if you can find the time to go through those plans again, see if you can find the means to be a tiny bit more generous, a little more pragmatic, slightly more thoughtful.
I ask the same thing from the rest of, in whatever way you can provide it. Whether it be the simple act of loving your neighbor, or fixing your community. Do whatever it takes to be the human in the system. A multitude of oft-invisible people will thank you for it.
- The machine
But I also believe that avoiding that cruel future is much more possible than it usually seems. For this, we do not need the world to change in unimaginable ways, for every man to be swept up in transformation. All it takes is a determined handful to build the sort of place that encourages a shared and growing prosperity.
But the beautiful thing is that each addition to that small group does not lead to diminishing returns, but the exact opposite. Every new comrade acts as a multiplier on the efforts of his tribe, as well as on the likelihood of the future they want. We need all the volunteers we can get, because that future cannot come fast enough.
I’m not advising you to ignore reality, but I do implore you to see beyond it’s worst parts.