Living the Cool Life: Join the Peace Corps or Corporate America?
Most of us have a desire to be good. We go through life with a certain level of moral ambition, if you like. We look for moral principles to live by, and we try to act according to those principles. As life draws to an end, we would like to be able to look back and conclude that we lived a good life, which for most of us implies that we lived a moral life or, as the Generation Y or Z’er may put it: “I lived a cool life.”
In a recent article, a son told the story of his parents leaving secure and well-paid jobs behind to join the Peace Corps. It ended with “…joining the Peace Corps made Mom and Dad pretty cool.” (Outside magazine, Oct 2013, “Mom And Dad’s Excellent Adventure” by Eric Hansen).
Many Americans consider joining the Peace Corps part of living a cool life. They would readily volunteer if it weren’t for career and family responsibilities being in the way (mom and dad in the story were recent empty nesters).
Some for sure join the Peace Corps in pursuit of an exotic adventure. But for a large majority the Peace Corps contributes to fulfilling the desire to live a moral life. The moral code that guides most people’s desire to join the Peace Corps is altruism.
Altruism tells us that we are being good if we give up something of value to us in exchange for selflessly serving those in need. For instance, give up a comfortable life and a fulfilling career for a while in exchange for a mud hut and menial work in a developing country. And the higher the value we are willing to give up -- the more we’re willing to sacrifice -- the more cool it is. After all, what is cool about an unemployed PhD in Bosnian Literature joining the Peace Corps with nothing on the line? No, way more cool is selflessly risking a successful career in order to serve people in need for a couple of years.
But why is it cool to give up something to go to a remote corner of the earth? After all, staying in a job that you love at a company that is relentlessly looking for new ways to make money by offering products and services that people want is much more likely to produce results. You are far more likely to have a positive impact on people around the globe by being part of an organization that develops, manufactures and sells a higher yield crop, a cheaper car, a new pharmaceutical drug, a more durable fabric for clothing, satellite TV service, online shopping solutions, and the like. But no, that is not cool, at least not compared to selflessly serving in the Peace Corps or some similar organization.
Why is it not cool to be part of corporate America? Because even though you are sure to benefit people all over the world, directly or indirectly, you are mainly pursuing your self-interest. Admit it, you are selfishly in it for the money, for the chance of advancement, or simply because you love your job. And the corporation itself exists to make money, the epitome of selfishness. Way not cool.
In our culture, it is not cool to be selfish. But it is cool to be altruistic, to give up something of value, to be selfless.
Yet altruism is debilitating. Instead of contributing to living a cool life, altruism does the opposite. Accepting altruism is like accepting a blackmailer’s demands. It does not matter how much you pay up -- how much you sacrifice -- by selflessly giving up your true values. Like the blackmailer, altruism always finds something more of value to extort from you:
Altruism: “You plan to join the Peace Corps for two years? Why not three?”
You: “I think two years will give me the appreciation for the plights of the people of Farawayland. And it will help me become an advocate for them at home.”
Altruism: “Give you the appreciation! Help you become an advocate! Is this all about you? Don’t be selfish! You should seriously consider extending your service.”
The result is a nagging feeling of unearned guilt that becomes your constant companion. A feeling of never achieving the moral ideal of selflessness and sacrifice you have accepted, because no matter how much you give up, it is never enough. Not so cool if you ask me.
No, ditch altruism and instead celebrate what’s truly cool -- pursuing your own values with a passion. Seek inspiration in the entrepreneur inventing a new amazing product. Be mesmerized by the CEO who turns around a company believed to be lost. Find a role model in the immigrant starting out with nothing, through hard work building a small business that is the pride of his life. Send a thought to the corporate cog-in-the-wheel that you will never hear of whose passion for her job is improving the products and services you buy every day. In fact, draw strength from the example set by every person you meet who, guided by rational selfishness, pursues the dream of the best possible life.
Are you a recent college grad? Reject the false moral superiority of the Peace Corps recruiter and set your sight on Silicon Valley or the North Dakota oilfields. Have you been in the workforce for a few decades and are losing interest in what you are doing? Do not give in to the unearned guilt produced by your mistaken moral code. Instead find a new job in a different industry to reignite your passion.
Altruism is way not cool. Turn your back on moral principles demanding sacrifice and selflessness and embrace those that celebrate rational selfishness. Join corporate America, not the Peace Corps, and your chances of living a cool life increase exponentially.